The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has had four of Wangechi Mutu’s bronze “Seated” statues on display since last September, and I just read that the museum will be keeping two of them permanently. Cool, I thought, maybe I’ll get to see them someday, and then I read that they were caryatids, and that got me wondering. And that sent me on a dive into the history of caryatids, carved figures, usually of women, which traditionally act as pillars holding up buildings. They date back to ancient Greece where the first caryatids were actual women and they didn’t hold up buildings but were worshipers of Artemis in the Peloponnese city of Karyai. Mutu’s sculptures are large–each weighs about 840 pounds and is more than six feet tall–and represent seated women, but don’t actually hold up anything. So technically they’re not caryatids, at least not according to the ancient definition, but that doesn’t matter. Terms evolve over time and take on different meanings. Gargoyles were originally decorative waterspouts–the words “gargoyle” and “gargle” come from the same root word, and I’m not sure which was the inspiration for Gargamel, but that’s another story.
In more recent history there’s Rodin’s 1881 sculpture Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone, which shows, well, the title pretty much gives it away. Rodin earlier carved three male figures–the term for those is “telamon” or “atlas”–which stand tall and noble, but his caryatid is crushed under the weight of her stone.
And this is where I politely say, fuck you, Monsieur Rodin. The traditional caryatids exhibit real strength. They literally hold up buildings. And they come in groups so no one has to hold up the whole place by herself, and if one needs to step out for a drink or a bathroom break the others can hold her place. Also if Rodin can call his sculpture a caryatid then clearly the term is flexible and doesn’t have to be strictly applied to a figure holding up a roof.
There are also contemporary caryatids holding up buildings. The Supreme Court of Poland has three caryatids that hold up part of the building and symbolize faith, hope and love.
To get back to Mutu’s caryatids, she specifically calls her sculptures that, but also explained how she was deliberately breaking with tradition:
Caryatids, throughout history, have carried these buildings to express the might and the wealth of a particular place. In Greek architecture, you see these women in their beautiful robes, and then in African sculpture across the continent you see these women either kneeling or sitting, sometimes holding a child, as well as holding up the seat of the king. I wanted to keep the DNA of the woman in an active pose, but I didn’t want her to carry the weight of something or someone else.
The disks that are so prominent on three of the four sculptures face forward, partly obscuring the faces of the figures, and suggesting that these women push forward. They use their strength to carry themselves, and it’s fitting that they are collectively called The NewOnes, will free Us.