Monday, February 11, 2013

El Anatsui: Gravity and Grace

Gravity and Grace
El Anatsui
Brooklyn Museum

The art critic and writer Holland Cotter has an article in the New York Times, "A Million Pieces of Home" (February 8, 2013), on the fascinating artist El Anatsui, who hails from Ghana but works in Nigeria and is currently the subject of a retrospective exhibition, "Gravity and Grace," at the Brooklyn Museum, February 8, 2013 to August 4, 2013, and most fascinating is his method for creating monumental works of art, which he developed almost by accident, as Cotter relates the story:
One day, by his own account, on a routine scavenging hunt through Nsukka, he picked up a trash bag filled with twist-off liquor bottle tops of a kind manufactured by Nigerian distilleries. Although it took him a while to realize it, he had found his ideal material: locally made, in ready supply and culturally loaded.

Liquor had come to Africa with colonialism. Production of rum propelled the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Later Africa had made a double-edged European import its own. And the history of all that was printed, in shorthand, in the brand names on the bottle tops: Bakassi, Chelsea, Dark Sailor, Ebeano.

In addition, crucially, the metal was visually magnetic. The colors - reds, yellows, silvers, golds - were bold and bright. And it was easy to manipulate, to "fold, crumple, crush," to quote the title of a documentary film on Mr. Anatsui made in 2011 by Ms. Vogel, a curator and former professor of African art and architecture at Columbia University.

Finally the bottle caps answered Mr. Anatsui's growing interest in expanding the scale of his art. Pressed flat, twisted, or cut into circles, then punctured, the caps could be wired together into panels or blocks, which were joined to form pliant, fabriclike sheets, each sheet a whole made of fragments, and, potentially at least, endlessly expandable. "When I started working with the bottle caps," he said recently during a trip the United States, "I thought I'd make one or two things with them, but the possibilities began to seem endless." The labor involved was arduous but communal, a kind of three-step performance. Studio workers in Nsukka made the initial blocks. Mr. Anatsui determined the configuration of the blocks into a larger works. Whoever installed the finished piece could hang and drape it as they pleased. No way was the only way, no way was permanent.
But don't get the idea that Anatsui is some untaught artist. He studied Western art in high school and university in what is now called Ghana, taught by European teachers in the twilight years of what was then a British colony, the Gold Coast. After leaving school, he immersed himself in Ghanaian traditions of art, seeking to indigenize himself, but he must have continued to absorb European ideas, and not only about art, for as the Brooklyn Museum informs us:
Reading French philosopher Simone Weil'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, while the title and form evoke a poetic interest in transcendence and connection.
Anatsui would appear to be an artist-intellectual since he reads Weil and applies her ideas in his artistic creations. This artwork, called "Gravity and Grace" -- inspired by Weil and inspiration for the retrospective's title -- is a rather large work of aluminum and copper wire, 145 5/8 inches by 441 inches (369.9 x 1120.1 cm), which means it's about 12 feet by 37 feet (about 3.7 x 11.2 m). Like all of these monumental works that I've seen photos of, this one seems both heavy and light, "the material and the spiritual . . . the physical and the ethereal" that Anatsui himself offers as a description of what he aims to explore.

To see more of Anatsui's works, click on the NYT's slideshow, the Brooklyn Museum's website, or Google's images.

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