A great opportunity to experience the innovative work of internationally renowned contemporary artist El Anatsui, considered by many to be a pioneer of abstract art, is currently available in Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. His first solo exhibition in a New York museum, the show was originally organized by the Akron Art Museum and will continue on view in Brooklyn through August 18th (the date has been extended). It showcases more than 30 works, from his early, wooden pieces of the 1980s and 1990s to his recent spectacular large-scale creations. Twelve are monumental wall and floor sculptures that represent the height of his creative achievements.
Making innovative use of simple, discarded objects such as wood, tin cans, and screw-top liquor bottle caps, Anatsui refashions them into monumental pieces that are not quite paintings nor sculptures but a new medium that he invented. From afar they resemble richly colored and shimmering, gigantic quilts, huge mosaics or Baroque tapestries. Upon closer inspection one discovers the simple materials from which they were made: bits of colored metal with names such as Dark Sailor, King Solomon or Top Squad printed on them, folded, crushed and twisted into different shapes and stitched together with copper wire, like chain mail. The end results present a visually arresting combination of glittering colors, forms and textures.
These monumental pieces, joining thousands of bottle caps, can take thousands of hours to produce. They are pieced together by up to 40 of Anatsui's assistants, carefully overseen by the artist in his studio. Segments of blocks are made with established shapes and colors and stitched together, and then Anatsui creates and supervises the formation of patterns until an overall composition is formed. The entire process encompasses elements of painting and sculpture but is not wholly one or the other, but a new art form that he conceived. Anatsui's works can appear radically different in each installation, for the artist encourages the collaboration of curators and designers as to how best to install and present his metal hangings, so the shapes, folds and even orientations change each time they are installed. A viewer can initially see a piece in one space, then have a different experience viewing the same piece in another space. As the artist stated, "I don't believe in artworks being things that are fixed. You know, the artist is not a dictator."
The main reason for Anatsui's success might be his work's ability to be at once simple and grand, using small, discarded, humble materials that are then transformed into magnificent, large scale pieces; its ability to appeal to both the casual viewer and the art connoisseur; to take local items that are then used to explore global themes and issues; and to blur geographic identities, as the works are both specifically African but also international.
Born in 1944 in Anyako, Ghana, Anatsui has lived and worked in Nigeria since 1978. After receiving a BA and a postgraduate degree from the University of Science and Technology, Jumasi, Ghana, he was a professor of fine arts at the University of Nigeria in the town of Nsukka. He received considerable global acclaim as a result of his participation in the Venice Biennales in 1990 and 2007. His work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Centre Pompidou, the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum Kunstpalast and the de Young Museum.
Fully versed in the history of Western art, Anatsui built an artistic reputation in Africa, but was also in touch with the art world abroad. Living and working in Nsukka, which he continues to do, he had several residencies abroad, was chosen to be represented in "Magicians of the Earth" in Paris, and then was shown in "Contemporary African Artists: Changing Traditions" at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1990. He later was in a show in London then a traveling solo show in Japan, then was paired in a show with Sol LeWitt in New York. A version of the current Brooklyn show toured Japan in 2010 under a different title.
In 1998 Anatsui, in Nsukka, came upon a discarded bag of the aforementioned liquor bottle tops, thus discovering one of the media that was to dramatically change his work and start a new artistic trajectory for him. The material had many positive characteristics; it was malleable, bright and colorful, cheap, easy to acquire, and culturally symbolic in various ways. As suggested by a 2013 review of his work in the New York Times, the caps referred to liquor brought to Africa by the European colonialists, profits from which also supported the slave trade. They also spoke to issues of poverty and frugality, decay and creative re-use, and global consumerism. They made it more possible for the artist to create large-scale work similar to what was then popular in European and American art markets. In addition, the final product could be folded up and easily transported.
Anatsui's art is inspired by elements of historical African art—including the elevation of mundane objects and the activation of space through installation, among others—and informed as well by the history of Western art, in which he was well versed. Some of his art might bring up comparisons with Marcel Duchamp's 'readymades' and John Chamberlains large-scale sculptures made from discarded auto parts. According to a statement by the Brooklyn Museum, Anatsui's work is a "universally accessible, contemporary statement, rooted in a modern, Pan-African experience and committed to exploring beyond boundaries." His work also celebrates personal liberty. He is someone who has left his native country but is an international artist in Africa, so has gone beyond traditional boundaries and resists easy categorization. As he himself explained, "If you leave your country you develop a kind of nomadic mentality. If I had lived in Ghana, my mind wouldn't have roamed. I wouldn't have expanded my experiences, or I would have been too comfortable."
Anatsui retired from teaching in 2010 and now concentrates on his studio work. His latest artistic direction seems to be site-based, outdoor installations. Excerpts shown in the Brooklyn show from a film by Susan M. Vogel portray one of his gigantic pieces being hung on the exterior facade of the Palazzo Fortuny Museum in Venice, once home of the textile designer Mariano Fortuny, which Anatsui hung as part of the 2007 Biennale. The material appeared opulent, seeming to echo Fortuny's own velvet and silk designs.
In 2012 his large artwork "Broken Bridge," made of recycled tin and copper wire, wrapped one whole side of the musee galleria at the Musee de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Then as part of Jack Shainman Gallery's El Anatsui exhibition in New York in early 2013, his largest outdoor sculpture, "Broken Bridge II," was installed. Measuring 157 feet wide by 37 feet high, and composed of 100 interconnected panels of recycled pressed tin and mirrors woven together,, it is a reconstruction of the Paris Triennale "Broken Bridge." Installed near the High Line in Chelsea in New York, commissioned by High Line Art and presented by Friends of the High Line, it evokes traditional practices of tapestry weaving while also reflecting the surrounding landscape of the High Line. It will be on view through the summer of 2013. Several pieces of his may also currently be seen in Art Zuid Amersterdam 2013, four months of outdoor sculpture by international artists in that city's Berlage district, through September 22, 2013. One resembles a giant gold flag, anchored by trees, but waving in the breeze.
"El Anatsui: Art and Life," a book by internationally recognized scholar of African art, Susan M. Vogel, accompanies the exhibition. Featuring nearly 150 images, it traces Anatsui's whole career, exploring various mediums leading to his bottle top art form. It traces the connections and implications of Anatsui's ideas—such as his desire to express Africa's history—life and art, including his themes of loss, chaos and decay. Ms. Vogel also worked closely with the artist to produce Fold Crumple Crush: The Art of El Anatsui,a documentary film, which is available on DVD, features interviews with the artist and footage gathered over three years in Venice, Nsukka and the United States, excepts of which are shown in the exhibition.
For more information about Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui at the Brooklyn Museum, extended through August 18th, 2013, please visit, www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/el_anatsui