The Humanitarian Has No Boundaries—On El Anatsui’s Gravity and Grace Exhibition

Patterns and Perspectives No.1

This year one of Brooklyn Museum’s most important exhibits is of El Anatsui’s extraordinary works. His first solo exhibition in a New York museum, I appreciated the opportunity to dialogue and be in contemplation with his work. Among ideas to discuss, is the potential that we may soon enter into a time of re-construction. Yes, amidst all the global chaos from Darfur to Istanbul, Egypt, the Middle East, and Boston, simultaneously one system experiences collapse, and a new system of ideas painstakingly comes into being. Art being on the forefront of expression, this is the time to really pay attention. We, being a global we. Soon being twenty or thirty years, or sooner?  It was also a refreshing exercise to view works originating outside of America or Europe.  

El Anatsui, Amemo, 2010

The work itself I found to be stunningly intricate.  However intricate Anatsui’s work is, it is also incredibly simplistic.  In perspective one is given the impression of aw or gravity, and with breathtaking ease, grace.  The role of art is to tell the story of the human experience, that experience adds many layers of complexity to our understanding.  Our understanding is informed by our perspective. We are, as cultures, multiple perspectives.  Anatsui’s work is very public, intrinsically it seeks to have a dialogue.  In fact, that dialogue is always sparking something new, as the work is never shown the same way, it fits the space it is shown in. This is the artist’s perspective bravely engaging with an international public audience, and of course he could leave others in the dialogue in number of ways: intellectually inferior, at a loss, but what the artist succeeds in doing is presenting his perspective with a relatable medium.  Art need not deliver a high exegesis on the ethos of life to be considered valid works, even as it seeks to have a conversation around the bonds of humanity, such as Mr. Anatsui has successfully composed with Earth’s Skin.

 El Anatsui, Earth’s Skin, 2007

Technical with the mechanics of sculpting material into a useful piece, and then fitted with replications, Anatsui’s work creates a pattern that evokes a perception of shape and design guided by color. Made on a grand sized scale, the pieces remain delicate–an unforced artist’s perspective that allows for an expansive perception.  Much like an Architect is the mastermind behind an edifice, his work is too massive in size to be completed alone, and thus it has been documented he employs up to eighty individuals to see his work come to fruition.

Anatsui’s work relishes the antiquities of his Ghana, and Nigerian influence; the woven objects, rugged and beautiful.  His work also has a world-cosmopolitan sensibility to it, a confident venture into modernity if you will, materially speaking they are familiar objects. However, his present body of work is neither African nor European specifically.  It is, nevertheless, particularly public. Woven and fastened, his work with recycled bottle caps and metal tins from Europe have that sensibility labeled all over them, drink being the main product imported by Europeans to the African continent.  At once the work has a familiarity to it, because the english words become very symbolic to english speakers (Nigeria’s official language is English).  Yet from a distance ( the work must be viewed from to gather a full scope), the words disappear and the pattern as a whole is revealed.  The way the caps are arranged by color gives detail, the way the work is hung, folding like stage curtains or a frozen image of a large swath of fabric rippling, gives the work its visual depth.  Anatsui says of his work that it exists somewhere between sculpture and painting.

The wovenness of the work seeds the idea of time honored Nigerian traditions of weaving the necessities.  Yet had this work been created in Haiti, or in Mexico—the notion of Nigerian textiles wouldn’t exist probably.  His work is not specifically Nigerian.  The material (bottle caps) of his works originally hails from over seas, used in Nigeria; it is recyclable trash, saved from being public detritus; the throw away of one particular aspect of the human experience.  Although made in Europe, used and discarded in Nigeria it is a universal process; a common practice, if you will, that eludes to one of multiple paths to global awakening.  A level consciousness informed by our shared experiences.  I believe El Anatsui has had the privilege of global exposure whereby opening him to a level of consciousness at a global scale.  The ideas that inform the artist’s work are preternatural for their time, and is, despite his detractors, why his work is at its height in appeal.  Some artists seek to dialogue with a closed audience, while other work is very public, and as such keeps the conversation moving forward without unnecessary labyrinthine dialect informing and projecting the work, but still retaining apparent degree of cerebral activity.  

Obviously the art world has its way of selling an idea, but Anatsui’s work sells itself.  Anyone who can say his work is just “blah”, well first of all that is surreptitiously dismissive, and just as they ask for more explanation as to why his work is supposedly so wonderful, I would ask for them to be much more comprehensive when they state such an overt disliking of his work.  Being blindly dismissive or subjectively naive—neither say much for remaining wisely objective.  Although the current influence of wealth in the world of art is highly criticizable, I being among them, let’s not blanket every artist that gets international recognition, vis-å-vis financial supporters of being nothing less than made-by-money.  The truth is, the work wouldn’t be possible without fiscal sponsorship. We have to be careful about demonizing or at least negativ-izing things that get touched by money, because well, that’s just about every damn thing we can think of. In addition, a system can be changed from within, and art is a necessary part of any change like the kind of change, we are speaking of. Anatsui is international because he is speaking an international language.  He is creating Public Art.  He has de-codified a language barrier that exists between cultures, whose object creations, are a great source of pride.  On either side of cultural ownership (creator/viewer) pride can misguide us along the way, so to set pride aside is a valiant effort, especially considering the history of culture, politic, and outside influences, war and corruption the African Continent has informing its peoples’ perspectives.  It takes a humble and authentic person to place their individuality in service of the greater whole.  Like an American letting go of his or her misanthropic (cultural wide) narcissism so that s/he can be available for greater good.

 El Anatsui, Drainpipe, 2010

When Anatsui returned from his worldly education, most of the materials like plaster of paris didn’t exist in Nigeria.  This is when an artist gets back to basics—you use what’s in your natural surroundings.  From cultural uses of wood now discarded, prevalent in Nigeria are bottles. Recycling centers in the middle of, what looks to be from a Western perspective, a jungle—anything but modern. These materials are available all over the world, and is what I think aesthetically gives the work one aspect of its global universality; the materials are familiar, even in far off forgotten places. The second is the trade of weaving, it is practiced everywhere in the world, and by all the sexes.  In that sense could have been created by a man or a woman, who may or may not come from a modern (democratically, and materialistically speaking) part of the world.  The weaver, at this point in time of human existence, may be a person who has never seen an iPad or heard of YouTube, or has ever had the need to grow their own food as an ordinary means of survival.  Weaving is international.  Weaving is also an object storyteller.

What Anatsui has demonstrated is that we can speak the same language.  He has deciphered a dialect of difference, and I think that’s a fairly important and huge accomplishment.  The complexity of life is well documented, we experience it every day.  I would say that those who fail to see the importance of his work, dismissing it as nothing too different or new, are walking on the same fine line as the curatorial world.  A world where complexity validates that practice of curating, creating a hierarchical structure.  Yet in that complexity is at risk the impactful practice of communicating. And if we can say that art has the power to engage minds, enlighten perspectives, and change the world—that fine line juggles the appeal of the masses, and privilege (no matter how the individual or group arrived at that point), if not elitism.  Anatsui’s work is massive in size, intricate in detail, yet can be seen to communicate in such an easy and universally simplistic way.  What’s so wrong with that?

El Anatsui, Gravity and Grace, 2010

What of reconstruction?  Well, in a definite oversimplification I would say that we can’t keep going on merely deconstructing.  Sure the philosophical and practice process continues, but as it exposes new realizations, they must be acted on by all forms of the humanities, and pragmatically as well. Anatsui’s work symbolically reconstructs with its use of recyclable materials; repurposing metals. It also engages with a Truth that all actions have their consequences, and we must face them. Nothing learned, nothing gained.  He engages with learning not for the health of any one particular peoples, but for a multitudinous people.  A humanitarian has no boundaries, except for the self-imposed.  In reconstruction we have to be willing to explore all of this, I think the only thing that hinders progress is this awakening to the consequences of our actions, which creates an insecurity. We fear making the same mistakes twice, we lack a certain self-confident conscience. As if we’ve awakened to this idea that we are creating the narrative of our time, and the future.  Artists such as El Anatsui are bravely creating a new narrative, one that tells the story of our global now, and tomorrow.

Patterns and Perspectives is an ongoing conversation and visual inquiry of the human experience.

*edited August 26, 2013