It hangs in the air like paper, like drapery, like a metal curtain, transparent yet solid, monumental and unreal. The space around it, the gallery walls, and you yourself become secondary to this vast and majestic thing. It is red and gold and black and shines as the light ripples across its surface. Woven like a tapestry and tiled like a mosaic, it appears almost medieval, but you know it is contemporary and African. Whatever it is, you cannot seem to look away.
No matter how many times one encounters Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s art, no single work looks the same way twice. His pieces, which rely on the concept of the “non-fixed form,” may be re-arranged and reconfigured every time they are put on display. The artist builds his famous monumental metal hangings from the caps and wrappers of Nigerian liquor bottles. Beaten until they are flat as tin foil and shine like copper, the liquor caps are tied together with wire, arranged in massive compositions by the artist, and sent off to the museum or gallery where they will be displayed. The hanging of each piece varies by venue, and between the malleability of the medium and the whims of the artist and curator, each final installation takes on a remarkably new appearance from that of its previous incarnation.
Anatsui’s retrospective, Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, opened at the Brooklyn Museum in February, and it is the first solo exhibit of the artist’s works in New York to date. The exhibition — the name is derived from the name of French Philosopher Simone Weil’s most famous books — contains 12 of the artist’s monumental metal hangings and several earlier and contemporaneous works made from other materials. Anatsui has gained considerable acclaim abroad, most notably in the Venice Biennale, where in 1990 he was one of the first five sub-Saharan artists to be featured in the world-renowned show. “Broken Bridge II,” a work currently on display at the High Line between 21st and 22nd streets in Chelsea, is Anatsui’s largest work to date. The public installation along with the show in Brooklyn has been drawing a great deal of attention to the rather enigmatic artist, whose identity seems to evade classic categorization.
El Anatsui’s retrospective being installed at the Brooklyn Museum
Anatsui’s status as an African artist is a label he both embraces and refutes, living and working across both continents (he is currently a professor at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, but has done several residencies in the United States), and producing work with deep roots in both cultures. His father was a master weaver of Kente cloth, the traditional multicolored fabric of West Africa, and Anatsui grew up in the British colony of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), studying art in a European education system. Though the artist has stunned Western critics in global art arenas, his approach and references always return to his native Africa.
His materials range from the slats of wood used in his earliest pieces to waste paper bags, the tin lids of milk cans, and, most recently, the flattened metal caps of liquor bottles. All of these not only originate in West Africa, but also directly involve cultural and political aspects of African history. The bottle caps, which come from a factory in Nigeria, reference the economic history of alcohol, which was brought by Europeans to Africa and became an integral part of the slave trade. The large-scale recycled newspaper bags reference the “Ghana-Must-Go” bags in which Nigerians urged Ghanian refugees to leave the country. One piece, entitled “Ozone Layer” (2010), makes a clear reference to the environmentalist movement.
Most of the artist’s work is rife with political, social, and cultural messages, rooted firmly in his African origins. Yet the works themselves appear somehow separate from their aesthetic undertones. They shine, earthy and alive, rippling with light. The viewer cannot help but admire their sheer aesthetic majesty, cannot help but put aside their associations and wonder how a crumpled piece of metal can mirror the sun. One piece, “Earth’s Skin” (2007), is made almost entirely of gold caps, and appears to fold and expand with a luminosity that is outside itself. These pieces have movement; they have personality. It would be a simple and tempting association to say that they incorporate all of the elements of their dual heritage: the classical mosaic and the African cloth, Ghanaian political history and French philosophy, the earthy colors of the landscape and the modern industry of the factory. Indeed, they do. But El Anatsui’s work, like that of any great artist, contains something implacable and beyond the present, beyond its cultural framework.
Each instance of Anatsui’s sculptural practice has a shelf-life of sorts, a singular incarnation that will last for a specific length of time before the work is taken down, folded up, and reassembled in a very different space and configuration. There is an inherent impermanence to this type of creation, an immediacy that strikes you, that catches you in its snare. So take a long, hard look, for you will never see these particular works again.
Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui is on display at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn) through August 4.