Monday, October 8, 2012

El Anatsui's "Gravity and Grace" at the Akron Art Museum

El Anatsui, Red Block, 2010. Aluminum and copper wire. Two pieces, each
measuring 200.75  x 131.5." Author photo.
The tour de force show, Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatusui, recently closed at the Akron Art Museum, where it had been on display since June. The show travels to the Brooklyn Museum, to open in February 2013. It is infinitely to Akron's credit that they brought this work by the great African artist to the United States and organized the tour in conjunction with Anatsui's New York gallery, Jack Shainman. Akron was the first American museum with the foresight to collect El Anatsui even before he was included among the African artists in the 1990 Venice Biennale, where simultaneously he was discovered and received as a master by the rest of the world.
El Anatsui, Earth's Skin, 2009. Aluminum and copper wire. 177x 394." variable.
Courtesy of the artists and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo by Joe Levack, courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.
Anatsui was born in Ghana but works in Nigeria, where he keeps a large studio of assistants busy fabricating his monumental works. These are constructed only of liquor caps and copper wire. The works made from these materials began with the serendipitous discovery one day of a sack filled with liquor caps, which he took back to play with in the studio. He now acquires them not by scavenging, but through industrial recycling in partnership with a distillery.

While one can compare Anatsui's metallic draperies to any number of African, Eastern, an Western art forms and materials, they remain unique: astonishing in beauty and bountiful in metaphorical connections. The artist's statements for the the Museum focus on the poignant power of the caps as symbols: Liquor and slaves once were both commercial products exchanged on West African shores. This token of commercial ties between the Americas and Africa is likely to felt as a natural poetry to an African—as deep and simple as the blues—even if North Americans have to process the thought as history and to consult the footnotes for nuance.

 What I find almost heart-stopping about the walls draped with monumental sheets of tiny, linked metal is neither the far that they are created from humble,post-consumer materials, nor that a sobering historical link between peoples and centuries is made in the process of typing together these symbols of dehumanized souls. Both of these points—central aspects of the work—come as afterthoughts to my direct, sensory experience of monumental, glimmering, luxe hanging artworks. Anatsui discusses these in relation to painting, but I find this comparison puzzling and remote.

Anatsui produces this work in flat sheets that are constructed gradually as small units are attached to one another to create ever-larger ones. The completed work is essentially a flexible, two-dimensional sheet with shape defined by its edges, but which has no internal rigidity, like fabric. Since Amemo is not even four-square, it can appear unique with each differently oriented installation, its colors concentrated in ways that create a new work from the same cloth each time.
El Anatsui, Amemo,(Mask of Humankind), 2010. Aluminum and copper wire.
208-5/8 x 161-3/8." Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Photo by Andrew MaAllister, courtesy of Akron Art Museum.

Oni of Ife, Nigeria
Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain in
coronation robes
Especially since the works are shaped as the installers (performers? tailors? costumers?) hang or dress them, I think it's useful to understand the works are textiles into which rich designs are knitted. They are tapestries, royal robes, even decorated chain mail armor for princes and heroes. Images of robed royalty from several cultures reside comfortably in imagined proximity to Anatsui's metal tapestries. There is a mutual reflection of majesty.

Bouba Abdoulay, Sultan of Rey-Bouba,
18th c. Hawaiian royal cloak
Ancient Japanese armor
Skilled knitters, embroiderers, lace-makers, and weavers employ traditional common languages of stitches. The fineness, inventiveness, and value of their work are measured by their skills with their particular stitches and control over the spaces between them. Sometimes their work is dense; sometimes light and airy; and sometimes the effect depends on the a combination arising from the artist's decisions about how much tension to keep on the thread, how much to twist it, and how to anticipate the final effect as the work is in process.

Basic construction stitch of Gli
Anatsui has similarly developed a vocabulary of folded shapes for the bottle caps. His studio workers spend days simply creating deep caches of each type to serve as the basic "stitches" for the work. They assemble units of these with copper wire, and then make increasingly large units in designs the artist designates. It's comparable to patchwork quilting, an additive process of design.
Construction using both positive and negative

While the viewer's impulse is to marvel at all the caps used in the work, it's also important to notice how Anatsui uses space in the pieces too. Some of the work is as dense as armor and other—the Gli, or Wall, especially—is diaphanous, even though all is assembled from the same material.

Shimmering, transparent Gli
El Anatsui, Gli installed. Author photo.
In Akron, each section of Gli was hung simply, without bunching, like a scrim on a theater set. It's easier to see through these floating walls from a distance than close up, when the eye wants to focus on details of bottle caps that stand out from the fabric's basic, repeated stitch. As I looked through one from a distance, though, toward a massive piece hanging on a the gallery wall, Gli seemed to provide a textured, golden glow that heightened the sensual appeal of the view, making it even more pleasurable to be standing just where I was, satisfied.

In the video on the Akron Art Museum's page about Gravity and Grace, Anatsui notes that the concept of a wall is a human construct; that walls sequester, divide, and deprive people of freedom. As with his comments on the sock-political meaning of liquor bottle caps, I appreciate that this is a meaningful starting point for a conception of walls. But again, I perceive that these particular walls that he has made appear far away in their effect from the metaphors he cites. Because the walls that shimmer in this gallery are so light, penetrable, and radiant, I find thoughts of restriction or prevention the farthest ones from my mind as I view them. These walls dissolve more than they divide.

El Anatsui, Waste Paper Bags, 2004-2010. Aluminum printing
plates, paint, and copper wire. Variable sizes up to 86" high,
between 36" and 54" at base. Author photo.
Gravity and Grace includes earlier bodies of work as well, notable the Waste Paper Bags made between 2004 and 2010 from recycled aluminum printing plates. These are free-standing sculptures of monumental size, assembled from mashed but legible printing plates held together by copper wire. While recognizable in the form of carrying satchels, they have the presence of human figures. To move among them is to await your bus with anxiety in the giants' terminal The induced grief and weariness in me. To look at them is to look into a trash heap of discarded, half-burned, defaced human stories. 

Detail, Waste Paper Bags.
In these carry-alls, people carry around lives of trash. How can one feel beauty or value in a world where ugliness and waste prevail? I think the Waste Paper Bags achieve more eloquently the purported social goals of the work in bottle caps. Messages about the ubiquitousness of trash, of consumerism's ravishment of the environment, of the destructiveness of Western capitalism on rural Africa—these and other issues born of the tensions between Africa and the West appear built into the fabric and final expression of this series.

Last year I reviewed a show of truly surpassing beauty, art of the ancient Ife culture in what is present day Nigeria. Nigeria is the home of some of the most awe-inspiring and spiritual art in the world, the products of brilliant civilizations known mostly to archaeology now. As in many former Western colonies (slave ports before that), cultural identity has to be an extremely embattled question not only in the collective, but in any individual artist's soul. To have such noble local heritage, yet in the present day to live in a country so wounded by its contact with the West—this is a situation we in the United States can try only with the greatest exertions of imagination and humanity to fathom.

El Anatsui, Gravity and Grace, 2010. Aluminum and copper wire. 208-5/8 x 161-3/8." Courtesy of the artist and
Jack Shainman Gallery. New York. Photo by Andrew McAllister, courtesy of Akron Art Museum.
El Anatsui's work in Gravity and Grace addresses in just these modes the appalling divisions that must exist between his part of the world and ours. He demonstrates monumental cultural decisions to be made when reality constitutes a modern inheritance of trash and memories of ancient splendor. Gravity and grace are what he presents in this tremendous show, through a sober, dignified, and luminously humanistic mind, rooted and raised in a very specific soil.
El Anatsui, installation at Akron Art Museum. Aluminum and copper wire.
Author photo.

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