Monday, July 29, 2013

Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui at the Brooklyn Museum

Broken Bridge II, 2012
(High Line Park, NYC)

There is a phenomenal exhibition of African artist El Anatsui going on at the Brooklyn Museum right now that is guaranteed to enrich your life and feed your soul no matter what your area of interest or cultural background. Gravity and Grace:  Monumental Works by El Anatsui is closing on August 18th and I would urge anyone in the area to not miss this wonderful opportunity of experiencing these works in person  since works such as these have to be experienced in person. But for those who can't make it to New York,  as the saying goes, if Muhammad can't go to the mountain then I will try to bring the mountain to Muhammad.

In my opinion a great work of art should go beyond the boundaries set by its creator to impose a journey that is unique to each individual observer. Anatsui's work accomplishes this goal perfectly. Although the artist's African heritage is quoted as the source of his ingenuity, Anatsui's monumental sculptures defy categorization and offer the viewer a unique, personal experience, encapsulating one in their magic which transcends their physicality. The curators at the Brooklyn Museum have done such a spectacular job in putting together this exhibit that I want my readers to have the full experience of seeing this show, which is why I will say nothing further and let the pictures and the gallery labels tell the whole story. 

Gravity and Grace:  Monumental Works by El Anatsui at the Brooklyn Museum exhibit...


A "nomadic aesthetic" - a visual language informed by his interest in the circulation of forms and materials as well as by his own biography - runs throughout El Anatsui's career. Manipulating objects discovered during his habitual long walks around Nsukka into a flexible new medium, Anatsui creates artworks that are both literary and metaphorically about movement.

Although this approach suggests a narrative of Western art history stretching from Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" to John Chamberlain's auto-part sculptures, Anatsui's work is also a product of contemporary African art history - aware of Western art but engaged in an independent internal dialogue. His work even shares certain modes with historical African art, such as the elevation of mundane objects, the celebration of performance and chance, the activation of space through installation, and an essentially conceptual and innovative nature.  Anatsui's work translates this historical context into a universally accessible, contemporary statement, rooted in a modern pan-African experience and committed to exploring beyond boundaries.

For Anatsui, the nomadic aesthetic also celebrates personal liberty. As an artist who has left his native country, and as an international artist in Africa, he claims the freedom to work outside categories, His flexible, open creations reflect this freedom, resisting easy categorization and crossing boundaries between aesthetic mediums.

(For those who cannot see the slideshow link)

GLI (WALL), 2010
Aluminum and copper wire

El Anatsui became interested in the notion of walls as religious, political and social constructs after visiting three cities whose histories have been shaped by such structures:  Berlin, Jerusalem, and Notsie, a city in Togo from which his Ewe ancestors claim descent.  The title of this work, Gli, can mean "wall," "disrupt," or "story" in the Ewe language.

"Walls are meant to block views," Anatsui says, "but they block only the view of the eye - the ocular view- not the imaginative view.  When the eye scans a certain barrier, the imagination tends to go beyond the barrier.  Walls reveal more things than they hide."

Installed here, Gli surrounds viewers, inviting a close look at the materials and process of a relentlessly innovating artist.

Tin, copper wire

Like all of Anatsui's works, drainpipe is tailored to the space it occupies each time it is installed. The basic unit for this piece sheets of linked milk tin lids, is exactly the same as in Peak  (in a following gallery). Here, the sheets are rolled up and placed in line to create long cylindrical forms. The variety of pipe-like forms that could be assembled with this single unit suggests the potential of the new medium.


(Link for slideshow)
Aluminum, copper wire

Here, Anatsui appears to transfer his method of assembling wooden works, which can be seen in the next gallery, to a metal wall hanging made of linked screw-top liquor bottle caps - a medium he invented. The piece's composition, with large, segmented 'continenta' panels joined by subtle connections, tests the physical limitations of the new medium.

The title evokes a theme that runs parallel in the artist's bottle-top works with his interest in the possibilities of the medium:  how the world is interconnected, or more specifically, how the historical trade in alcohol links the continents of Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

(Link for slideshow) 

The "nonfixed form" - an artwork which, by design, is variable in its form and how it is displayed - illustrates the principles of freedom, movement, and mutability.  Such openness is at the heart of El Anatsui's art, informing everything from the gathering of his materials - often acquired during habitual long walks - to the installation and interpretation of the works, which rank among the most complex conceptual objects being made today.

Anatsui's wood sculptures represent his first experiments in developing the nonfixed form. Although Anatsui often designed these segmented compositions with a primary arrangement, he encourages curators and collectors to experiment in rearranging them on the wall.  His metal wall hangings, which came later, are also fundamentally nonfixed in form, as their shapes, folds, and even orientations change each time they are installed. 

It is this malleability in particular that has prompted critics to hall Anatsui as a pioneer of abstract art. His two-dimensional sculptures that move and his painterly compositions that abandon both paint and a flat surface are, in the words of the first-century Roman historian Pliny the Elder, "ex Africa semper aliquid novi" - something new out of Africa. 



(Link for the slideshow) 
Aluminum printing plates, paint, copper wire (Jack Shainman Gallery, NY)

Made from discarded plates used for printing everything from newspaper sports, political and obituary pages to wedding invitations, the malleable sheets comprising Waste Paper Bags evoke everyday Nigerian life through universally recognizable forms. 

They may also suggest a particular Nigerian experience that affected this Ghanaian artist.  The forms resemble large woven bags that became known as "Ghana must-go" bags in the early 1980's, when Nigerians hostile toward Ghanaian refugees who had fled political and economic unrest suggested they pack their belongings in such sacks and return home. They speak to the artist's own nomadic history, while recalling a tragic moment that challenged his pan-African ideals. 


(Link for slideshow)
Aluminum, copper wire (The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi)

The drama and grandeur of Earth's Skin reflects the weightiness of its title. Is the artist peeling back the earth's crust, or creating a protective mantle for it?  Anatsui tends to use poetic and evocative titles for his works that open a range of possible interpretations while also inviting an emotional response. He is interested in provoking thought - but not in providing answers. 

(Link for slideshow)

Aluminum, copper wire (Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

Reading French philosopher Simone Wolf's 1947 book Gravity and Grace inspired Anatsui to explore the concepts of what he calls "the material and the spiritual, of heaven and earth, of the physical and the ethereal" by using a limited, contrasting color palette, as typified in this work, among his largest.  The seriousness of Anatsui's project reveals itself in the limits to which he stretches his materials and process here, while the title and form evoke a poetic interest in transcendence and connection.

PEAK, 2010
PEAK, 2010
Tin, copper wire (Jack Shainman Gallery)

Peak belong to a series of works composed of found metal elements. This series, which originated in 1999, and predates Anatsui's metal wall hangings, represents his early experiments in composite metal sculptures.  The title refers both to the brand of condensed milk associated with the lids, Peak Milk, and to the new forms that these mundane elements take on in the artist's hands. Anatsui produced in the Netherlands and sent to West Africa for sale - to produce a universally accessible form.

(Link for slideshow)

"If you touch something you leave a charge on it, and anybody else touching it connects with you, in a way." - El Anatsui


El Anatsui's experiments with found materials began with wood. By transforming used mortars (represented in this show by early preparatory sketches,) and discarded wood, the artist developed an interest in objects whose surfaces reflect a history of use and human interaction. With Waste Paper Bags and the Peek series, he translated this impulse into metal, developing strategies for linking discarded tin and aluminum objects that evoked individual histories or anonymous consumption on a global scale.

Anatsui's discovery of a discarded bag of aluminum liquor-bottle tops over a decade ago inspired him to explore their potential. The malleability of these small metal pieces, along with their colors and distinct logos, allowed him great freedom to combine them in a seemingly endless palette of new forms and arrangements. Nigerian distilleries of rum, brandy, gin whisky and other local liquors typically clean and reuse bottles but discard the metal tops, as they are marked with competing brands' logos. The artist now purchases these discarded elements for use in his studio.

In linking the scraps of metal, Anatsui also links the histories of the individuals who previously touched the objects. He is particularly interested in the history of the liquor trade, which links Africa, Europe, and the Americas. By transforming this commercial flotsam, he asserts Africans' active participation in global consumer practices.

PEAK, 2010

(Link for slideshow)
Aluminum and copper wire

Red Block reveals El Anatsui testing the aesthetic limits of his invented medium.  He explores the monumentality and meditativeness of a single color - suggestive, perhaps of paintings by Mark Rothko or Gerard Richter - yet at the same time deliberately introduces subtle variations, activating an otherwise uniform surface with small, intentional surprises that draw the viewer closer.

In this final gallery, Anatsui has added one more dimension to his work by the placement of small fans behind the Ozone Layer, creating actual movement. In order to do it justice one has to go beyond just looking at photographs. So I am sharing my very very amateurish video on Instagram hoping to bring it more into focus (Link)

New Yorkers also have the added advantage of seeing Anatsui's largest work, Broken Bridge II, hanging from a building by High Line Park.  While I fell in love with his golden sculptures on view at the Brooklyn Museum that to me recalled the luxurious textiles of my Byzantine and Ottoman heritage, this installation of recycled rusted tin and  mirrors situated in a public space invites the viewer to contemplate 21st century issues of the role of consumer waste on the changing parameters of  globalization. El Anatsui is an extraordinary artist who prods and challenges his viewer demanding participation and whose work leaves one curious for more...

High Line Park (23rd Street), New York City
This is the kind of art that has the potential to resonate with all kinds of humans no matter what their background or previous experience.

In the words of the Great Rumi "Come, come whoever you are..."
Whether you are interested in Medieval, Renaissance, Contemporary or Islamic art, come...
Whether you are interested in the environment or social issues or anthropology, come...
Whether you are interested in sculpture, painting or salvage art, please come...

Trailer: Fold Crumple Crush: The Art of El Anatsui by Susan Vogel from Susan Vogel on Vimeo.


  1. Thank you for this, Sedef, for bringing this work to us. El Anatsui is one of my favorite artists. We have two of his works here - one like Drifting Continents and a wall-hanging made of wood. I would LOVE to see a larger exhibition of his works, and you've inspired me to make more of an effort to do that. His work makes me slow down, and smile, and think.

    A Nigerian man I knew talked about growing up there and how he, as a child walking with his mother, saw El Anatsui picking up garbage from nearby fields. His mother explained to him that this was an artist, finding material for his work. That image is so vivid for me, and moving - I'm not sure exactly why.

    I love this quote by Anatsui on Broken Bridge II, from the art21 blog: “I come from a place where you have a lot of sky. The sky starts from almost ground level and goes up. But over here you have to really look up to realize that there is eventually sky somewhere. That’s almost the experience of most people who live in open country and they come to New York—sky is not a common commodity.”

    Your excitement about his comes through in your post - thanks again!

    1. Karen,

      The quote you mention actually perfectly explains the experience of standing before Broken Bridge II, as you look upto it, it's as if the sky has opened up and it starts with the mirrors and contunues to infinity without a break.

      I found his work and especially this exhibit really inspiring. His works makes me stop and contemplate my own stories. It's so universal. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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