El Anatsui - Brooklyn Museum of Art


Freedom of movement, of shape, of materials, of process, of interpretation. Freedom is a central theme manifest in all the myriad facets of El Anatsui's work, which is so well presented at the Brooklyn Museum's Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui. The show does a marvelous job of highlighting the conceptual complexities of Anatsui's art, as well as the continuities that persist in his work even as he explores new directions and materials.

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
Gli (Wall), 2010. Aluminum and cooper wire, dimensions variable.

One of the key ways the BMA accomplishes this excellent overview of Anatsui's work is through the very successful integration of the artist's own voice throughout the exhibition. Short but salient video clips enhance our understanding of his process and context, giving the audience the opportunity to hear about the work in El's own words—and those of his plentiful assistants—as well as to see him creating and interacting with his pieces in his studio in Africa. Importantly, it also gives viewers a chance to see and hear the works move.

Earth's Skin, 2007. Aluminum and cooper wire, 177 x 384 inches.

Motion is a significant component of these pieces, both literally and metaphorically. El aspires to create works that allude to the movements of materials and people—what he refers to as "nomadic aesthetics"—and to the traceries of use and ownership that people leave behind on the objects they handle and utilize. It strikes me that in this particular sociocultural and historical respect, El's concerns mirror those of material culture studies.

Gli (Wall) (detail), 2010. Aluminum and cooper wire, dimensions variable.

Anatsui's recent bottle top constructions look fluid, and are in fact mutable—we learn that he provides no instructions for installation, and that each piece will invariably look different every time it is shown. In one of the central galleries visitors can page through the book El Anastui: Art and Life, and compare pieces hung in that very room with a few of their previous installations. In some cases the distinctions are subtle, in others drastic, and I wonder whether curators set out with the express intent of showing the work differently than it has been before. In the book, one can see Gravity and Grace installed "upside down," as compared to its orientation at the Brooklyn Museum (below left), and hung "sideways" at the Museum of Modern Art in Saitama, Japan in 2011 (below right). But these pieces have no "correct" configuration, and El encourages this playfulness and the finding of new relationships within his works.

At far right: Gravity and Grace, 2010. Aluminum, cooper wire.
Alternate installation of Gravity and Grace, Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, Japan, 2011. As published in Susan M. Vogel, El Anatsui: Art and Life (New York: Prestel Publishing), 2012.

He expresses these views in the video clip accompanying a display of some of his earlier wood pieces, "nonfixed forms" that also permit reconfiguration. We watch him rearrange the order of their wooden board components, and I was pleased to see that when the Brooklyn Museum installed the piece Conspirators (below left), it included below the text an image of a different arrangement (in 2012 at the Akron Art Museum, below right). This facet of El's wooden and metal constructions impacts visitor experience in a large way—viewers know they are seeing something special and unique, and that this is the only time it will be shown in precisely the manner they currently see it.

El Anatsui. Conspirators, 1997. Wooden relief with paint, 24 x 55 3/4 x 7/8 inches.
Alternate installation, Akron Art Museum, Ohio, 2012.

El and his assistants are not the only voices incorporated into the show. In keeping with BMA's commitment to technology—and community inclusiveness—iPads throughout showcase short clips where one can "meet," for example, the curator and the director of education. These individuals urge viewers to respond to statements and questions, and—in response to the frequently levied query as to whether such comments will yield anything of quality—I did find that visitors had indeed offered some valuable, and even poetic, insights. Of course a few also asked questions easily answered by watching one of the videos or reading wall text, but I think that the value of the museum's gesture of inclusiveness outweighs that faction of responses.


The Brooklyn Museum also employs a few additional methods of encouraging audience participation and interactivity. For one, QR codes throughout the show direct visitors to further information, which in some instances seemed only tangentially related (though doubtless interesting). I could not be sure, however, as I do not have a smartphone. I know, for shame. I had hoped I could access all of this fascinating content from the website, but unfortunately it seems I will never know which artist also "used fire in some of his works," and it will be much more difficult to determine my favorite adinkra symbol. Thankfully I need not miss out on viewing the installation of the work entitled Gravity and Grace, which is also available on the website. However I do wish I had been able to see this clip while viewing the work itself. (The museum has iPods for rent, and also offers "cell phone tours," but I am not sure whether they provide devices that would enable the scanning of the codes.)

Secondly, and appropriately, the "process" section of the exhibition includes some "crafting" stations (below) where visitors are encouraged to attempt to make some of El Anatsui's vocabulary of forms, with a few necessary substitutions: paper for potentially dangerous tin, and twist ties for wire. This thrilled me; I had just been thinking how the exhibition made me want to make things. And, moreover, it seemed an opportunity the artist himself would thoroughly support; he stated that the goal he has in mind is "to draw the artist in people out."

Crafting stations!
Hey Ma, look what I made!

In this area Anatsui's diverse techniques are clearly enumerated; the wall text refers to 30 common shapes, and the catalogue describes 15 principle formats, that comprise the vocabulary El has devised for this artform he invented. The longer one views his works, the more these various patterns, orchestrations, and ways of folding and shaping the metals become discernable. A very effective accompanying video lets us view El and his assistants at work, and hear them explain their process.


El's artwork touches on fascinating questions about the intersections of art, craft, and design, what distinguishes them, and whether such distinctions need even be recognized. Regarding these artworks in particular, it also raises the issue of access and means; El underwent formal art training, but quips "they don't make plaster in Ghana." Instead he takes an ordinary, and prevalent, material and turns it into something extraordinary. In his own words, he "uplifts [it]… to an object of contemplation." Or, again in the vein of material culture studies, the ordinary already is extraordinary. And, as his assistant points out in one video segment, Anatsui's choice of materials returns us to the ever-present notion of liberty: "cheap materials render you free."

Peak (detail), 2010. Tin, copper wire. As noted in the wall text, another iteration of Peak is found in the next gallery, underscoring the variable nature of Anatsui's pieces.
Earth's Skin (detail, see earlier image), 2007.

Anatsui's references to traditional modes of art and craft, and allusions to specific periods in the history of Africa, further broaden the scope of his conceptual work. Several times I considered his monumental works to read like maps or flags, almost countries in themselves. And in a way they are a map, to particular socio-cultural and historical truths. The bottle tops are artifacts of a link between Africa, Europe, and America, and in his work El Anatsui physically weaves them together. The networks he creates even further signify the larger fabric of humanity. El says "if you touch something, you leave a charge on it, and anybody else touching it connects with you, in a way." Curators making the significant decisions that give shape to this exhibition—and to the works it contains—would certainly connect with El in a very real way, both conceptually as Anatsui intends and physically, given the visceral nature of his works. I am curious what Anatsui's thoughts might be concerning the documentation of his art and its various installations over time. I wondered too whether he was involved in this particular exhibition (and overheard a guard tell another visitor that he was not).

Talk about art imitating life, and vice versa! At left: River, 1997. Wood and paint. At right: A perfectly chosen shirt for proximity to this piece.

Textile and tactile, these works are instantly recognizable as the marriage of painting and sculpture that the artist describes. It denies categorization, and yet… in the "process" section of the show, it seems counterproductive for the wall text to ultimately refer to Anatsui's work as painterly. For all the emphasis here on his defying traditional formal categories, must his innovative work still finally be described according to the Western conventions from which it attempts to break free?

Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through August 4, 2013. At 200 Eastern Parkway, the Museum is open 11am-6pm on Wed., Fri.-Sun., and 11am-10pm on Thurs; closed Mon. and Tues. The first Saturday of each month, the museum is open until 11pm. Suggested admission is $12 for adults, $8 for students and seniors (over 62), and free for children under 12 with adult accompaniment.

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