Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Monumental Works by El Anatsui at the Brooklyn Museum: Gravity & Grace

The most astonishing quality of El Anatsui's monumental metal wall works is their fluidity. Made from bottle caps from a nearby distillery, these works have qualities of both painting and sculpture, because of the marriage of color, design, texture, and shape. They take on radically new shapes with each installation, allowing curators to be co-creators.  I had seen digital images of the work and assumed it was fixed, both because of its massiveness and also because each piece looked so right. It was difficult not to touch them, feel their texture, and play with expanding,contracting, and manipulating their shapes.  Just a finger poke would have created a new fold.  Their fabric-like fluidity is breathtaking.

I took a lot of close up shots, because I couldn't resist looking closely at the 30 different methods he developed for crushing, crumpling, and folding the metal.  In one of the videos in the exhibit El Anatsui says that he wants to viewer to be able to read the liquor bottle labels, i.e. inviting close viewing as well as taking in the whole. 

A Ghanaian who has lived in Nigeria since he was a young man, he makes reference to history - e.g. the colonial powers who brought liquor to Africa.  There is a sense of the imprint of the thousands of people whose hands touched the bottle caps that make up the work.  The ultimate in re-purposed trash, these objects are transformed into work that is beyond just beautiful, beyond fabulous design, but actually spiritually sublimely transcendent.

Monday, June 17, 2013

El Anatsui - Twice in Two Days

In this spacious light-filled room, it felt like stepping into an ancient Stonehenge-like monument.  I had known of El Anatsui's iconic wall hangings made from re-purposed scrap metal, and made sure to get to New York while his exhibit was still at The Brooklyn Museum.  I was stunned by WASTE PAPER BAGS, 2004-10.

"Made from discarded aluminum plates used for printing everything from newspaper sports, political, and obituary pages to wedding invitations, the malleable sheets comprising Waste Paper Bags evoke everyday Nigerian life through universally recognizable forms.

They may also suggest a particular Nigerian experience that affected this Ghanaian artist.  The forms resemble large woven bags that became known as "Ghana must-go" bags in the early 1980s, when Nigerians hostile toward Ghanaian refugees who had fled political and economic unrest suggested they pack their belongings in such sacks and return home.  They speak to the artist's own nomadic history, while recalling a tragic moment that challenged his pan-African ideals."

This is El Anatsui's greatness.  He takes difficult historical, political, and sociological themes, and uplifts them into something that is transcendent.

I saw the exhibit with a friend on Friday, and again with my cousins on Saturday.  I saw more the second time, and got the video so that I could continue listening to El Anatsui speak about his work and demonstrate his collaborative creative process.  I want to learn his philosophy of life.  He is one of our spiritual elders.