Print options

July 19, 2013

African Artist's Monumental Works Featured in New York City

by Carolyn Weaver

The works of Ghanaian-born sculptor El Anatsui are full of paradoxes: visually splendid, even glittering, they are made of humble, recycled materials like copper wire, aluminum bottle tops, weathered wood and rusted tin. In Fold Crumple Crush, a film about his work by African art expert Susan Mullin Vogel, the artist says he has always been drawn to materials that others have used and touched.

“Things that have been used before, things which link people together,” he tells Vogel, adding that anything anyone has touched retains a “charge.” “Anything used by humans has a history, so those properties help whatever I do to gain some meaning,” says Anatsui.
 
El Anatsui, who will be 70 next year, has lived and worked for most of his life in Nsukka, a Nigerian university town, even as his fame abroad has grown. His work hangs in museums in the West, and has been displayed at major international art shows, including the Venice Biennale in 1999 and again in 2007. In recent years, he has created enormous, flexible wall hangings from copper wire and discarded liquor bottle tops. Teams of assistants twist, fold and crush the colorful caps into various shapes, wiring them together at El Anatsui’s direction, to create works he calls a marriage between painting and sculpture.
 
They are hung differently each time they are shown; El Anatsui rejects the notion that his art must have a fixed meaning, or even fixed form. “My idea initially was that I was doing sculpture, sculpture that is so free, that you can change its form in any way,” he comments in Vogel’s film.
 
More than 30 of his works are now on display at New York's Brooklyn Museum, in “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui.” Vogel, who also wrote a book on El Anatsui, says his art unfolds in meaning depending on the viewer’s position.
 
“When you first see these bottle top hangings, they look like sort of very rich, sumptuous, cloth of gold, brocade, they look fabulous,” she says, “and especially they look opulent. And as you get closer to them, you see they’re made out of junk.”
 
Vogel says the shift in visual perception mirrors the works’ multiple allusions, both to natural and abstract beauty and to African lives today and in the past. The bottle tops are from a distillery in Nigeria, a relic of the “triangular” trade when sugar cane from the Caribbean and the Americas fed European distilleries, and Africans were sold into slavery to work those distant sugar cane plantations.
 
“So, you have this early link with colonialism and slavery, and this sort of contrast between the opulence and the suggestion of luxury and ease that you see from a distance, and the suggestion of poverty, of labor, of waste, and of excess when you get up closer to them,” Vogel says.
 
Yet although his work is rooted in African materials and experience, El Anatsui disavows any simple literal message. “Gradually, my tendency would be to work in things which are abstract and pure. I don't know if I'm looking for something ethereal,” he muses in Fold Crumple Crush.
 
“I think his work has an immediate appeal and a deep complexity. The more you look and the longer you think about it, the more you see and the deeper [the] implications of an African working with this material,” Vogel says. Visitors to the show seemed to agree. One said she got goosebumps from the show; several referred to how “alive” the work seemed.

“People have been really ecstatic,” says Kevin Dumouchelle, curator of African Art at the museum. “I think on the one hand, it is work that is visually stunning and overwhelming, and there’s something about the scale of it that sort of exalts you immediately. He is a global abstract artist first and foremost who is making work that’s always been interested in Africa, and that sort of takes African art as an intellectual basis and plays with it.”
 
Another work by El Anatsui is on view in New York this summer. Broken Bridge II, the artist’s largest outdoor installation to date, hangs on the side of a building overlooking Manhattan’s Highline Park. Composed of jagged pieces of rusted tin and mirror-like metal, it seems to be a piece of an architectural ruin, one reflecting the New York sky and cityscape from another time and place.

Video assistance provided by Daniela Schrier