The Wall is Also a Story: El Anatsui at the Brooklyn Museum
Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui
February 8 to August 4, 2013
The Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, NY, (718) 638-5000
El Anatsui’s exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum begins in the fifth floor rotunda with Gli (2010), a majestic installation comprised of four sheets of delicate metal rings that are suspended at various heights, inhabiting the space from floor to ceiling. Gli is an Ewe word that has multiple meanings: wall, disrupt, or story. An accompanying text elaborates that Anatsui was thinking of walls in Berlin, Jerusalem and Notsie when making this piece. Probably less familiar to many New Yorkers than the other examples, Notsie is a town in modern day Togo, West Africa, where according to oral histories, the Ewe people settled briefly before fleeing an oppressive ruler sometime in the 17th century. Reminiscent of chainmail, these hangings are solemn and haunting, conjuring the memory of powerful walls and ancient sorrows. Gli is torn and crumpled like a curtain in places, but as one moves around the space, the sheets shift and glimmer, becoming more solid and lively.
It is for these elegant and impressive bottle cap tapestries that Anatsui is most well-known and, unsurprisingly, they are the centerpiece of Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, an exhibition which originated at the Akron Art Museum in Ohio. The show demonstrates the range of Anatsui’s aesthetic—from the dense painterly abstraction of Black Block and Red Block (both 2010), to the gentle humor of Ink Splash (2010), and the seemingly precarious structure of Ozone Layer (2010) which flutters in an artificial breeze provided by fans hidden in the gallery wall, rattling like the gentle wheeze of an old smoker.
El Anatsui was born in Anyako, Ghana in 1944 and is a member of the Ewe ethnic group. In 1975 he moved to Nigeria to teach at the University of Nsukka, where he has resided ever since. After studying western sculptural traditions and methods at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, Anatsui became interested in the indigenous forms and materials of his home country. He began to look at adinkra symbols and kente cloth–a weaving style practiced by members of his family–and one of his earliest pieces experimented with the wooden trays used to display food in the marketplace. From there he moved into other wooden, ceramic and recycled forms, often choosing materials associated with consumption, before discovering a bag of discarded bottle caps outside a local distillery and starting upon the explorations that led to his current work.
Earlier artworks such as the painted wood relief Conspirators (1997) allow the viewer a glimpse of how Anatsui’s work has developed and the common themes that run through his practice. The picture that emerges is of an artist who is interested in the mutability of forms, works arduously to explore and reinvent his materials, and transforms personal and historical narratives into form and content. A number of the artworks reference specific stories that warrant a closer look. Waste Paper Bags (2003), an installation consisting of seven grey forms, modeled on the large, red and blue stripped bags that are deceptively strong, and are a ubiquitous sight at a West African bus station or marketplace—the go-to bag for a woman with a heavy load or a long distance to travel. In Nigeria these bags are referred to as Ghana-must-go, harking back to a moment in the 1980s when an influx of Ghanaian refugees into Nigeria caused tension between the two groups. El Anatsui’s versions of the bag are large enough to house or transport a family, but too heavy to move. They are made of discarded aluminum printing plates that carry the stories of contemporary Nigerian life–newspaper articles celebrating new anti-malarial studies or a local political leader, school textbooks, wedding announcements and church pamphlets. The piece is the most monument-like of these monumental works, commemorating the rootless and sometimes uncomfortable position of an expatriate.
Like the trash that El Anatsui uses as raw materials, the difficult historical relationships associated with Gli, Waste Paper Bags, and the bottlecaps themselves (a token reminder of the Atlantic Slave Trade) are present in the galleries, but do not overwhelm our sensory experience of the work. Instead, memory and history are transformed into a celebratory occasion. The eponymous piece in the show is one of the largest of the tapestries, measuring 145 5/8 x 441 inches. As with all his work, Anatsui wields his deceptively simple palette masterfully, building blocks of colors with subtle care and changing the direction and rhythm of the weave as a painter would carefully choreograph her brushstrokes. A red form pulsates outward across the space, meeting a cool continent of silver and yellow. Suggestive of a pinwheel, a sunset, or a flower, the energy is vibrant and expansive. It is not a finished statement, but a ball of potential energy thrown up against a wall, continually growing and shifting, adjusting to circumstances with gravity and grace.