Exactly six years ago, the Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui shimmered into the international spotlight when two of his works were shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Today, critics, curators and art historians still struggle to come up with a term that aptly describes his most successful and alluring compositions--stiff, colorful sheets comprised of discarded metal bottle tops, linked together and suspended from the wall or ceiling. These singular compositions exist somewhere between painting and sculpture, and as Robert Storr explained in 2011, a full ten years after Anatsui began making these hanging pieces, "It is a measure of El Anatsui's originality that there remains even now no accepted term to describe the artist's signature works." Many art-world professionals discuss Anatsui's oeuvre not on its own terms by in relation to the works of other artists who recycle materials or use ready-made objects (i.e. Marcel Duchamp or Kurt Schwitters).
Most viewers approach El Anatsui's art with little concern for categories or terminology; instead, they are struck by their sheer beauty and overwhelming scale. "I think the most important thing is that one is able to reach or communicate," Anatsui explains. "People at times see my works without any prior knowledge of their context or even their titles, and they create their own meanings out of them." In a way, that pure, unadulterated experience is what the artist desires.
Indeed, Anatsui's work needs to be experienced firsthand. On my recent trip to his current retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, I was-- perhaps predictably--blown away, both optically and physically. His towering metal tapestries (my favorite term for them) are visually stunning from a distance. They are draped elegantly in the Museum's fifth floor atrium, glittering in the natural light, and turning, almost imperceptibly, like diaphanous Calder mobiles. In the ensuing white-walled galleries, works are hung from the walls and sometimes crawling on the floor, creating a piercingly gorgeous, twinkling environment. However, upon closer inspection, the soft folds of the tapestries become sharp, jagged contours, and solid blocks of blue and yellow resolve into brand names and logos printed on metal.
Anatsui argues that "context is both an aid and a hindrance" to understanding his work, but a bit of information about his background and artistic evolution offers valuable insight. The artist was born in Anyako, Ghana in 1944. His mother died when he was young, and he was raised by his uncle, a reverend, in the nearby town of Anloga. Occasionally he would return to Anyako to visit his father--who had thirty-one other children by five wives--and he would see men weaving traditional kente textiles. He became interested in art early on, and at twenty, Anatsui left home to study fine arts at the Kumasi University of Science and Technology, where he received classical European training.
In 1975, soon after adopting the name "El," he moved to Nkussa, Nigeria to join the faculty at the national university. When he arrived, the curriculum stressed indigenous inspirations rather than Western ones as a way of helping to form a newly-independent Nigeria's cultural identity. Though the faculty was initially quite international, by the mid-1980s, Anatsui was one of the only non-Nigerian teachers at the university. In between semesters of instruction, he began traveling abroad to participate in residency programs, which allowed him to live in England, Brazil, and Denmark, among other places. Despite these lengthy sojourns, he never relocated permanently. In fact, he remains one of the only African artists who did not spend an extensive period outside of Africa before becoming world-renowned.
Anatsui continues to stress his heritage through his choice of medium. His early works were made of standard materials like wood or ceramic, but he began using discarded metal in 1998. Anatsui started with abandoned cassava graters. Though he valued these rough, punctured rectangles for their physical qualities, he also appreciated them as signifiers of international trade: they were constructed from retired galvanized-iron drums, brought to Africa by European importers of oil and chemicals, then converted into graters by Nigerian processors of cassava, a food staple imported from Brazil by sixteenth-century Portuguese merchants. In sum, the graters allude to colonialism, migration, and global connectedness.
Later the same year, Anatsui discovered a bag of castaway Peak (a brand of Nigerian powdered milk) can lids hidden in a bush and stitched them together to form a long, malleable wave. From there, he moved on to alcohol bottle tops, an emblem of the transatlantic slave trade. Alcohol was produced by African slaves on plantations in the Caribbean, then was ultimately brought back to Africa and traded for other natural resources. After months of deliberation, Anatsui decided to stitch these tops together, only to realize that they resembled the kente cloths he saw during his childhood.
It wasn't until 2002 that he publicly exhibited these works, first at the October Gallery in London. The gallery director, Elisabeth Lalouschek, began hanging the tapestries before Anatsui arrived, thus setting an important precedent: the curator, not the artist, decides how they are installed. Though each of these works is the result of months--or years-- of labor and careful reflection, they are not fixed forms. In fact, they appear differently in each exhibition.
The current iteration at the Brooklyn Museum is remarkable, not only because of its potent visual appeal but also because it is accompanied by illuminating videos of Anatsui telling his story. I'll be leading a class based around the exhibition on July 18. Click here to learn more.