On ViewBrooklyn Museum
February 8 – August 4, 2013
In “Peak” (2010), part of a series El Anatsui began in 1999, a sheet of stitched tin can lids crests to form a sudden summit. The work derives its name from the brand of condensed milk common in West Africa—a symbol of the Ghanaian artist’s everyday—yet produced in the Netherlands. In this instance, Peak Milk comes to represent a common contemporary reality: the material culture we consider to be local and personal is often times the product of a global economy.
In Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, the artist investigates the blurring between the local and the global, Africa and the Western world—a tension that is equally evident in his biography. Born in Ghana and raised by a Presbyterian minister uncle, he studied Western visual art in his home country. As a counterbalance to his British-model-heavy education, Anatsui endeavored to learn more about Ghanaian arts and traditions: “When I left art school, my idea was to try to indigenize—to get a bit of indigenous material into my psyche.” Mining the detritus of commercial products became a way for the artist to delve into the complicated histories with which he was working.
Anatsui is best known for making massive sculptural installation works out of screw-top bottle caps, transforming the scrap metal into glittering, abstracted wall hangings such as “Drifting Continents” (2009), that resemble everything from tapestries to topographical maps. Sourced from a distillery in Nigeria, the bottle caps refer to the prevalence of liquor in West Africa, an industry that grew with colonialism in the Americas. As its title suggests, “Drifting Continents” (2009) consists of seven or so panels of patchworked bottle caps that seem to simultaneously shimmy toward each other and float away like land masses, alluding to these inextricable ties between Africa, Europe, and the Americas as a result of the Atlantic slave trade.
While Anatsui’s choice of material is a careful consideration of its larger social and economic implications, his formal treatment of it is equally meticulous. The screw-top caps are manipulated into a fixed number of forms: crumpled into rosettes, slivered and looped like a twist-tie, folded on four sides to form a square, or cut into long, rectangular strips, that are then quilted together. The sheet-like art objects, often hung on the wall like a sumptuous curtain, have garnered comparisons to kente, a colorful textile native to Ghana that has morphed into a symbol of Pan-African pride.
The name of the exhibition is only mostly true: these colossal metal works inhabit the cavernous gallery spaces, but lesser-known examples from the ’80s and ’90s punctuate interstitial passageways. These wood pieces are the show’s unexpected treasure. Sure, “Gli (Wall)” (2010), the maze of shimmering scrap metal hanging in the exhibition’s sunlit rotunda entrance, is mesmerizing, but Anatsui’s more modestly-scaled constructions share the same weighty subjects and formal finesse of the large-scale installations. “Currents” (undated) consists of vertical strips of wood placed in an uneven row; Anatsui took a chainsaw and a torch to each, searing in striations that, when the individual components are assembled together, seem to undulate. The artist does not specify an order for the fifteen planks, but instead allows whoever is installing the work to determine the display.
Such malleability of the final product is what Anatsui calls the “nonfixed form,” a concept that still holds true to his monumental works, whose folds and placement changes with each installation. Anatsui’s invitation to determine the installation’s final shape has a collaborative, community-focused feel to it, a welcoming of the interconnectedness in today’s globalized world. More cynically, perhaps, Anatsui’s nonfixed forms demonstrate patterns of power in globalization; it is only curators and collectors who can decide how to hang the works, something a visitor must passively accept.
Power and privilege are something curator Kevin Dumouchelle seems to have been sensitive to when mounting this installation, being careful not to overly define Anatsui’s work in Western terms. (Mercifully, the show spares us from making too many references to the European-American-centric canon of art history). Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Dumouchelle is a curator in the department of Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands, not a contemporary art curator, and that the exhibition’s entrance faces the Arts of the Americas galleries. The question is not, how are we to classify Anatsui’s work in relation to our rigid art historical lineages, but rather, what purposes do these classifications serve anyway? Anatsui’s work is compelling not so much because it is critical or celebratory of globalism, but because it asks us to consider our frame of reference.