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article imageHeavy metal at the Brooklyn Museum Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Mar 8, 2013 in Entertainment
New York - Ghanaian artist El Anatsui is enjoying his first solo exhibition at a New York Museum. His artwork is constructed from found materials, and offers a thoughtful commentary on his homeland as well as the cultural implications of reclaimed materials.
The exhibit, on now through August 4th at the Brooklyn Museum, gets its name from philosopher/mystic Simone Weil's posthumously-published (and widely loved) book of the same name, and features thirty works in total -which may seem a paltry few, until you consider the immense size of some of them, to say nothing of their scope.
Nine huge sculptures -constructed of various reclaimed metals, joined chainmail-style by copper wire - form a wondrous, poetic visual, one that is mainly silent, but for the delightful metallic clinking sound they make as an occasional breeze floats by. Even with their grandeur, there's a certain intimacy at work; the shapes and colors you see shift and transform, influenced by both light and changeable presentation. Anatsui's work, with all its hard edges, soft drapes, big ideas and whispered truths, embraces contradiction in a way few artists working on this scale successfully have done.
The Ghana-born artist incorporates bottle caps, lids, and copper wire into massive quilt-like sculptures that recall the shimmering majesty of Gustav Klimt and the geometric precision of Kandinsky. But more specifically, they reference the traditional kente cloth Anatsui's once wove, albeit a more metallic, hard-edged version; kente is a traditional strip-woven cloth made by the Ewe peoples of Ghana and Togo and Asante peoples of Ghana. Anatsui recently told WNYC's Leonard Lopate the bottle caps he uses replicate the colors of kente cloth. "it's a coincidence but it's not a strange one... in Nigeria they have a tradition of fabric which has almost the same color schemes... the same people who made those fabrics are the same people who are distilling hot drinks and therefore making caps for the bottles... they're thinking of the same bottles."
A shot of  Gli (Wall)  at the Brooklyn Museum. 201 0 Aluminum and copper wire. Five pieces  measurem...
A shot of "Gli (Wall)" at the Brooklyn Museum. 201,0 Aluminum and copper wire. Five pieces, measurements variable: A- 10 1⁄2 x 29 1⁄2 feet; B- 17 x 13 feet; C- 24 1⁄2 x 16 1⁄2 feet; D- 13 x 8 feet; E- 16 1⁄2 x 13 feet. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.
It's the refuse from these bottles that provides the raw material for much of Anatsui's work. "Gli" (the Ewe word for "Wall") suspended above and around visitors on the airy fifth floor of the Brooklyn Museum, provides an overwhelming welcome to Gravity and Grace. Its brightly-colored pieces of reclaimed metal are twisted, flattened, and pinched into various geometric shapes (be they squares, circles, rectangles, even rosettes), and linked with delicate spirals of copper wire. Inspired by his visits to Berlin, Jerusalem, and Notsie (a city in Togo with ties to Anatsui's ancestral past), the work's title (in the Ewe language) can mean either "wall," "disrupt," or "story." As Anatsui says in the museum notes, "When the eye scans a certain barrier, the imagination tends to go beyond that barrier. Walls reveal more things than they hide."
Detail from  Gli (Wall)   El Anatsui  2010 Aluminum and copper wire. Five pieces  measurements varia...
Detail from "Gli (Wall)", El Anatsui, 2010 Aluminum and copper wire. Five pieces, measurements variable: A- 10 1⁄2 x 29 1⁄2 feet; B- 17 x 13 feet; C- 24 1⁄2 x 16 1⁄2 feet; D- 13 x 8 feet; E- 16 1⁄2 x 13 feet. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.
El Anatsui was born in 1944 in what was then the British colony of Gold Coast (now Ghana); he studied art through school and university, combining the utilitarian and the mythological. His early works include a series of wall pieces which were constructed from the wooden trays used in local markets. As the New York Times notes, The series also established features that would characterize much of his future output: a reliance on mediums close at hand, portability and abstraction. There was a measure of humor. It must have amused market workers to see plain old fruit trays so elevated. And, in what was fundamentally conceptual art, there were social and spiritual dimensions. The trays originally held food, which carried associations of abundance, want and generosity. The textiles from which the graphic symbols came were often used for funeral wear.
Anatsui moved to Nsukka in 1975, where he accepted a teaching post at the University of Nigeria. The town provided much inspiration, owing to its lively arts scene that included several prominent Nigeria painters and artists. It was in Nsukka that he began working with ceramics, and eventually wood, using these materials to express his experiences and ideas as an immigrant in a post-colonial African country.
 Seers   1993/2010. Wood  28 ½ x 50 x 4 3/8 in. Fourteen pieces. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Sh...
"Seers", 1993/2010. Wood, 28 ½ x 50 x 4 3/8 in. Fourteen pieces. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.
A residency in Massachusetts in 1980 further expanded the artist's repertoire, and it was there that Anatsui began experimenting with using chainsaws in his sculpture work -a technique he would bring back to his work in Nigeria. In 1990, Harlem's Studio Museum sought artists to include in its upcoming "Contemporary African Artists: Changing Tradition" exhibit; El Anatsui was chosen (one of five), and from there, was invited to the Venice Biennale the same year. It was the first time sub-Saharan African artists were shown at the Biennale. In 1995, Anatsui enjoyed various group shows (in Japan, Germany, and England) and took part in the inaugural Johannesburg Biennale; in 1996, his work was shown (with artist Sol LeWitt's) at New York's Skoto Gallery; ten years later, he would enjoy a solo show at the same venue.
 Peak   2010. Tin and copper wire. Three sections  113 of 140 sheets (each sheet measures 62 x 112 i...
"Peak", 2010. Tin and copper wire. Three sections, 113 of 140 sheets (each sheet measures 62 x 112 in.) Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.
In 1998 Anatsui started wiring together the tops of milk tins to create floor-bound pieces, and the "Peak" series was born. The double meaning of the word "peak" is played on, implying a mountaintop, as well as (to Nigerians) the name of a popular brand of milk whose parent company is Dutch dairy cooperative Royal FrieslandCampina. Thousands of Peak lids are used to form various landscapes, their smooth silver surfaces glinting and shimmering in an eerie light that at once embraces a 1970s glamour (to my eyes, the pieces resemble disco-era sequens gowns) and a terrifying robotic future (a la Terminator). Seeing them sprawled across the museum's wooden floor in all their metallic splendor, their whipped cream-like tops rising in sensuous (if solid) mounds, the phrase "awfully beautiful" has never seemed more apt -or troubling.
Detail from  Peak   2010. Tin and copper wire. Three sections  113 of 140 sheets (each sheet measure...
Detail from "Peak", 2010. Tin and copper wire. Three sections, 113 of 140 sheets (each sheet measures 62 x 112 in.) Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.
Many of the pieces in Gravity and Grace feature ecological themes, in fact. "Ozone Layer" and "Earth's Skin" are but two examples. Anatsui's use of refuse -particularly from Nigerian distilleries -is a calculated, culturally-weighted decision. Such materials evoke, even in their smallest pieces, a litany of themes -ones Anatsui embraces: industry, capitalism, spending power, environmentalism, history, legacy. Much of the material used in these immense pieces is collected from around Nsukka, the Nigerian city where the artist is based; a team of helpers assemble the tabs, lids, and wire in a slow, sometimes painstaking process can that take years. Sometimes the names are legible: Dark Sailor, Bakassi, King Solomon, Makossa, Top Squad, Chelsea, Ebeano. These are the names of Nigerian alcoholic beverage companies, and their inclusion provides cultural and historic insight into the nature of colonialism and consumerism in Nigeria. Alcohol has a long, historically fraught association with colonialism in Africa, what with the production of rum exacerbating the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Modern manufacturers recycle the bottles themselves and discard the aluminum seals, labels, and tops. The works in and of themselves are marvels of engineering, endeavor, and design, and they certainly have considerable aesthetic value as well -but there is a considerable lot worth pondering beyond their immense mosaic-like beauty.
Detail from  Amemo (Mask of Humankind)   2010. Aluminum and copper wire  208 5/8 x 161 3/8 in. (vari...
Detail from "Amemo (Mask of Humankind)", 2010. Aluminum and copper wire, 208 5/8 x 161 3/8 in. (variable) Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.
There's also a sensuousness to El Anatsui's work that belies its hard materials -a soft, fleshy softness that makes you want to run your hand across many of the works' surfaces, though, as constant signs reminder visitors, no touching is allowed. El Anatsui has embraced the abstract aspects of his works -in fact, he did quite early on -by making what he terms "non-fixed" pieces. These are works that aren't designed to be shown the same way twice. Even his smaller wooden pieces, like "Motley Crowd", "Seers" or "Yida (Comb"), are meant to be arranged and re-arranged with each new exhibition. The technique brought to mind the surrealists' game of exquisite corpse -that embrace of chance, of random associations creating new things, of new creative collisions (in whichever media, be it writing, drawing, or sculpture), leading to new ways of perceiving and experiencing -and ultimately, creating.
 Waste Paper Bags   2004- 2010  Aluminum printing plates  paint
and copper wire. Seven pieces: A-86 ...
"Waste Paper Bags", 2004- 2010, Aluminum printing plates, paint and copper wire. Seven pieces: A-86 x 38 x 36 in.; B-54 x 36 x 34 in.; C-81 x 60 x 30 in.; D-38 x 36 x 34 in.; E-74 x 48 x 24 in.; F-116 x 52 x 39 in.; G-81 x 36 x 36 in. H-variable . Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.
But that doesn't mean Anatsui shies away from making loaded statements on the nature of consumerism and capitalism. His "Waste Paper Bags" offers perhaps Gravity and Grace's sharpest commentary on both ideas as they relate to modern day immigrant experiences. Constructed of discarded aluminum plates that were previously used to print newspapers, the malleable sheets bring something of average Nigeria to the viewer, while simultaneously offering insight on the messages contained within local reporting (and advertising, it should be noted). Furthermore, the bags evoke the history of Nigeria, particularly its immigrant experience in the early 1980s, when Nigerians hostile to Ghanaian refugees suggested the newcomers pack their belongings and return home, using large woven bags known as "Ghana must-go" bags. As the Museum points out in its notes on the piece, "(the works) speak to the artist's own nomadic history, while recalling a tragic moment that challenged his pan-African ideals."
 Motley Crowd   1998/2010. Wooden relief with metal 24 3/8 x 24 3⁄4 x 2 3/8 in. Twelve pieces. Cou...
"Motley Crowd", 1998/2010. Wooden relief with metal 24 3/8 x 24 3⁄4 x 2 3/8 in. Twelve pieces. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.
The Brooklyn Museum isn't the only place to catch El Anatsui's inspiring work; it's in Chelsea too, on view now through Summer 2013. His immense "Broken Bridge II" hangs on an outdoor wall next to the High Line, between West 21st and West 22nd Streets. Presented by High Line Art, the work is visible from the popular urban park, as well as from the street below. Made of recycled pressed tin and mirrors that have been woven together, "Broken Bridge II" is 37 feet high and 157 feet wide. The work is the largest outdoor installation by the artist, and was originally exhibited in Paris during the 2012 Triennale.
But, even attending the Brooklyn show, one is overwhelmed; Gravity and Grace gives the viewer a wonderful example of the sheer magnitude of Anatsui's work -the scale of its ambition in terms of size as well as content -but its keen insights leave you just as slack-jawed in wonder. One is given wholly new impressions about not only the artist himself and his approach to art-making, but what they say about dedication to craft and vision, and, simultaneously, the ways in which they address the Western notion of "Africa."
Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace contains the following insight, which is entirely suited to El Anatsui's beautiful works, and the Brooklyn Museum show in particular: All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception. Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void. The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.
El Anatsui   Gravity and Grace   2010. Aluminum and copper wire  145 5/8 x 441 in. (369.9 x 1120.1 c...
El Anatsui, "Gravity and Grace", 2010. Aluminum and copper wire, 145 5/8 x 441 in. (369.9 x 1120.1 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photograph by Andrew McAllister, courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.
Andrew McAllister
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