A gallerist at the Armory Art Show recently asked me what it was like to work with artists from developing regions of the world. I didn’t mind this question, but he did it while staring down at me with a look of pity, which felt like a condescending pat on the head. It may have been his healthy 6 foot height that made me feel that way, or it could have been his (mis)assumption of what it means to make art in regions considered “less established” than their North American or European counterparts. Either way, I surmise he was suggesting I had chosen the short straw.
Ironically, we were standing in front of a vast and elaborately interwoven tapestry made entirely of found bottle tops by world-renowned Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. Amongst the likes of William Kentridge and Marlene Dumas, El Anatsui is arguably one of the most prolific contemporary artists to come out of Africa. This made me smile—which soon turned to a full-fledged grin when I glanced over at its $500,000-plus price tag. There is something beautifully ironic about an artist who creates a work using found objects that, in essence, cost nothing, and then through ingenuity and the right positioning is able to enter the higher echelons of the global art market and find legitimization. This may sound vindictive, but I would prefer to think this admiration advocates that the resourcefulness and creativity of such an artwork is just inexplicably worthy.
El Anatsui’s notoriety is an exception, however, and the majority of artists working in this genre and with similar such ingenuity, are less recognized. One of them is El Salvadoran artist Simon Vega who uses shipping crates, bottles, signs and old TV’s to create sprawling sculptural installations. His most recent installation at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York City depicts a space module made of crushed soda cans, discarded bottles, iron rods and pieces of found wood that has seemingly crashed in to the earth. The work is impactful, brashly humorous and confident—unusual in the market driven, and therefore often “safer”, contemporary art practices of Europe and North America.
Now, it would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that what defines artists from developing regions of the world is their ability to make trash in to art. Along with their obvious craftsmanship and skill, there is also a complex and integrated understanding of their social and cultural context. This ability to transform (often evocative) materials from their immediate surroundings illustrates an unconstrained approach to art making that art from these regions tends to, more often than not, embody. Unencumbered from the traditional use of art materials and inherently indifferent to the rules of formal exhibition—these artists are refreshingly placed at odds with mainstream art practice. As a result, this artwork unselfconsciously pushes boundaries, and poses questions of not only how we relate to the work, but also how we contextualize it within the art world at large.