El Anatsui at the Brooklyn Museum
All my friends and colleagues vividly remember their first encounters with a work by El Anatsui—and are eager to tell the story. Almost always, it’s a tale of the unexpected, of a wonderful surprise, of delighted bewilderment. For many, their first sighting was of the great, glittering curtain he hung on the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, during the 2007 Bienniale. For me, it was a chance encounter, that same year, at the High Museum, Atlanta, where I had gone to see a Morris Louis exhibition. (I’m told he participated in “Les magiciens de la terre,” a legendary pan-African exhibition I saw in Paris in 1989, but I don’t remember his work.) At the High that day, I hadn’t been particularly excited about what I’d found in the permanent collection galleries— the handsomely proportioned, beautifully lit galleries by Renzo Piano seemed more memorable than what was on display—and then I saw something inexplicable and ravishingly beautiful: a sort of tapestry of gold and ochre, with flickers of red and black, loosely hung on a distant wall. It seemed heavy, sagging here and there in suave curves. As I approached, I became aware of a dull metallic sheen and of a unifying geometric system, rather like small, rectangular tiles. Whatever I was looking at reminded me, fleetingly, both because of the color and the regular divisions, of Ghanaian kente cloth—those gorgeous textiles pieced together from narrow strips banded with subtly varied blocks of yellow, red, black, and green that are the magnificent equivalent of formal wear in some African cultures. But there were countless other associations, too: with the gold ground mosaics of churches in Ravenna, with medieval tapestries, and more.
What was I looking at?
Coming closer still, I was surprised to see that the opulent, refined expanse before me was, in fact, made of artfully folded and joined bits of soft metal of various colors, hence the metallic sheen and sense of increment. Whatever it was, it was both immensely labor-intensive and extraordinary. The label told me the artist’s name—El Anatsui—that he was born in Ghana in 1944 but worked in Nigeria, and that the piece, dated 2006 and titled Taago, was made of aluminum strips from the necks of liquor bottles. Critical judgment seemed irrelevant at this point. I knew nothing about the artist or his work, but I was completely seduced by this irresistible object.
Since then, I’ve seen works by El Anatsui at fairly regular intervals at exhibitions and installations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, the Clark Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and many other places. Each time, the sense of unexpectedness and pleasure has been much the same. I’ve liked some works better than others, but somehow that kind of distinction didn’t seem particularly important. Rather, dealing with the work of El Anatsui seemed to be a question of opening myself up to pure visual experience and to the panoply of associations provoked by his enigmatic “constructions”—something I’ve always believed was the aim of good, expressive art. But I’ve also learned a lot more about the artist and his intentions, all of which has helped to account for some of the uncanny power of his work, enriching, rather than diluting, its impact, although, of necessity, the element of surprise has been replaced by one of gratifying recognition.
This has been a kind of El Anatsui season in New York, with an exhibition of recent lively, polychrome tapestries at Jack Shainman Gallery, from mid-December 2012 through mid-January 2013, and a monumental, rather severe installation dependent on dark, differently textured, geometric elements on a huge wall beside the High Line between 21st and 22nd Streets. Even more importantly, through August 4, “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui,” at the Brooklyn Museum, his first solo exhibition in a New York museum, allows us to take the measure of a remarkable artist. Thanks to a series of short, extremely informative videos made by Susan Vogel, the acclaimed scholar of African art and former director of the Museum of African Art, New York, we can learn a great deal about his rigorous choice of materials, his method, and his convictions, and gain some insight into his training and evolution—it’s interesting to discover, for example, that Anatsui’s father was a weaver of kente cloth, although his son never learned the art, preferring to go to art college and then to leave Ghana, to teach in Nigeria. It becomes clear that Anatsui, because of his history, his way of working, as a mature, sophisticated African (and Africa-based) artist who employs scavenged materials, and his increasing international acclaim, is a kind of living definition of what it means, these days, to be a successful contemporary practitioner working in a global art world; fortunately, the excellence of his work counterbalances how neatly he fits the part.
“Gravity and Grace” includes about thirty works from around 1997 to 2010, plus some fascinating undated drawings and a few works on paper from the mid-1980s, as context. The earliest constructions (and some surprisingly explicit early, vertical wooden figure sculptures) are made of incremental sections of wood, sometimes with incised or applied patterns; with their endlessly changeable configurations, they announce the principles of “non-fixed form” and of using repurposed, recycled materials that govern the artist’s mature work. It’s instructive to see them but only as backstory. They lack the potency and resonance of the “metal cloths,” as Anatsui calls his vast tapestries, and the recent, freestanding “soft constructions”—my term, not his—that are the strength of the Brooklyn show. A video allows us to understand how these enormous, incremental expanses are achieved, as we watch the artist in his studio. The starting point is generously sized patches of the wire-linked metal bands, assembled by a group of assistants, in various colors (often subtly varied by the printing and patterning on the aluminum), and in various configurations—flat and folded, twisted into rings, angled, and so on. Anatsui deploys these patches like a palette, abutting and overlapping them, combining, folding, and recombining them, taking into account not only their hue, but also their physical character, the direction of the component elements, the density, and all the other variables, as he spreads the patches in a vast composition on the studio floor, like a painter pouring pools of color. Further adjustments are made, as the increments are joined into a whole. Earlier “metal cloths” had uniform surfaces and regular outlines. Recently, Anatsui has been exploiting and emphasizing the surface inflections inherent in his method, as well as the potential irregularities that can arise from the initial shape of the patches, and he has explored even more extreme surface variation, adopting “flaps” of thin metal that threaten to escape from the all-over “weave.” Although he carefully constructs the final “metal cloth,” the way it is displayed remains mutable—the “non-fixed form” principle—with the final configuration, which varies from installation to installation, left to the discretion of curators and installers, as a continuation of the collaborative process that initiates the work.
At the Brooklyn Museum, “metal cloths” cascade down walls and puddle on the floor or hang elegantly, like swags of sumptuous textile; tendrils and fingers of linked metal sometimes extend in various directions. (I prefer the pieces with more regular outlines, which seem to give more emphasis to internal inflections, but that’s a quibble.) The atrium outside the exhibition galleries proper is sliced and punctuated by the immense five-part Gli (Wall), 2010—the largest section is 101⁄2 by 291⁄2 feet, the smallest 13 by 8 feet—a mega-work that here is installed to form a kind of open, golden maze of varying degrees of transparency. Elsewhere, it might assume a different configuration. Also recent are several provocative soft constructions made of milk can lids, rigid discs of golden metal wired together into large sheets that have been pulled upward and allowed to slump, until they support themselves, remaining tenuously upright. Other lids have been assembled as long strips, rolled into tubes that lean and crawl along the floor. It’s an interesting new direction, with robust if perilous three-dimensional forms replacing the opulent color of the “metal cloths.”
The cumulative effect of the many, large, richly orchestrated works in “Gravity and Grace” is that of a visual feast. The sheer beauty and lushness Anatsui achieves with his recycled, humble materials more than justifies the curators’ use of the term “alchemy” in describing the artist’s process—a literal transformation of base metal into aesthetic, optical gold. No explication is needed for us to enjoy these engaging works, but once we know the story, they gain in significance. The colored aluminum bands come from liquor bottles, introduced to Africa by colonial powers, hardly to the benefit of society and, as waste, hardly to the benefit of the continent’s ecology. Yet here, again, we are presented with a triumphant transubstantiation by means of collective labor and a directing intelligence, from polluting detritus into lavish, poetic, deeply moving works of art. All that, and we can easily get there on the subway.