El Anatsui Shows Both “Gravity and Grace” in New York

Post industrial African urban pointillist El Anatsui is outside at The High Line in Manhattan and inside the Brooklyn Museum right now to offer “Gravity and Grace”, two characteristics one may associate with the man himself.

Using aluminum bottle caps and similar mass consumer materials from his home country of Nigeria, the Ghana-born Anatsui paints temporary organic facades, glittering curtains, crumpled moonscapes that bend clumsily and undulate gracefully.  So familiar has he become with his materials over his four decade career, Anatsui can create translucent scrims to peer through and reptilian skinned impressionist coats of armor, each bending and folding of the metal fabric in service of a multitude of imaginations.

El Anatsui. “Peak”, 2010. Detail. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

“I have a desire to manipulate the material to get something else out of it,” he said during his recent talk with African art expert Susan Vogel and Kevin Dumouchelle, Associate Curator of Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands at the museum before a capacity auditorium audience this month.

While speaking about his own approach to his practice, Anatsui showed a refreshingly straight forward investigative approach to his own process of discovery, perhaps explaining how such rigid materials are transformed by his hand into something flexible, malleable, free. “I have a feeling that artwork is a parallel of life, it is life itself. It is not something static. We are about changing, forever in a state of flux.  If that is the case then the artwork should be in a state of flux.”

El Anatsui. “Peak”, 2010. “Earth’s Skin” 2007 on the left. “Gravity and Grace”, 2010 on the right. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

As he offers observations of his own culture and the effects of consumerism and globalism on it, he encourages you to take a hands-on approach to art making. A scholar and professor, El Anatsui’s practice has been rooted in the same D.I.Y. ethos that propelled many a street artist in the current global scene that emerged in the 2000s and 2010s.  Mining the diamonds in his backyard, El Anatsui models a personal mission that encourages artists to look at everyday consumer products and see their potential as high art, as vehicles for expression that go beyond craft making or green initiatives.

In an invitation to collaboration, El Anatsui appears to have a remarkably un-Diva-like disposition when it comes to how his work should be exhibited, inviting others to determine how to best display it according to their site-specific considerations. Speaking of his retrospective that ran from September through the end of 2012 at the Denver Art Museum, the artist expresses a gleeful sense of surprise at how curators there displayed his work. “I saw that they were able to mount some of the works very interestingly and they were able to give them shapes that I would not have thought about myself. “

El Anatsui. “Earth Skin”, 20o7. Detail. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Brooklyn’s curator Dumouchelle used that same freedom to formulate exhibition decisions as he mounted work in the varied spaces for this show – to great effect. Describing the rationale for some of his curatorial choices, Dumouchelle talked about it this way to the artist, “We were very inspired by your admonition to collectors and curators to take your work and use it to respond to the space and that’s really what happened with ‘Gli’,” one of the larger works in the show.

“We had this incredible 72-foot rotunda that is very rarely used for art, ” says Dumouchelle, “Very rarely do we have art of the scale that will actually fill that space, so we wanted to think about how best to make use of that space. ‘Gli’ is designed as this sort of architectural environment where you find yourself as a visitor immersed and sort of surrounded by these works and so we wanted to make full use of the drama of that space.”

El Anatsui. “Gravity and Grace”, 2010. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

The work of El Anatsui is equally charged and effective inside the formal exhibition and outside on the street, and New Yorkers are treated for free to the latter through the summer with “Broken Bridge II”, a huge work suspended along a passage of The High Line in Manhattan. With threadbare and broken pieces disrupting the glistening grid-like patterning, there are striking similarities to the work he hung outside the Palazzo Fortuny during his famed splash at the 2007 Venice Biennial. A patchwork effect that he associates with frugality and poverty, free hanging portions of “Broken Bridge II” are fluttering and gently knocking in the East River breezes on The High Line. Similarly, you are reminded of “Ozone Layer”, an aluminum and copper wire piece hanging in the museum with some sections loosely fluttering and banging against one another in the small breezes created by fans mounted into the wall.

In a video for the exhibition El Anatsui appears to dismiss formal art training and relies upon his own conviction, “All the things I was taught about in art school – I set about subverting them,” he appears to say with aplomb.  With “Gravity and Grace”, viewers will experience some sense of awe and unexpected appreciation for ingenuity and revealed beauty; a confirmation that El Anatsui’s steadfast dedication to his own exploration and instincts has expanded the options for artists who will follow.

El Anatsui. “Earth Skin”, 2010. Detail. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui. “Peak”, 2010. Detail. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui. “GLI (Wall)”, 2010. Detail. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui. “GLI (Wall)”, 2010. Detail. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui. “Ink Splash”, 2010. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui. “Drifting Continents”, 2009. Detail. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui. “Drifting Continents”, 2009. Detail. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui. “Drifting Continents”, 2009. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui. “Ozone Layer”, 2010. Detail. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui. “Red Block”, 2010. Detail. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui. “Amemo”, 2010. Detail. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui. “Broken Bridge II”, 2012. Detail. Currently on view at the High Line Park in NYC. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

El Anatsui. “Broken Bridge II”, 2012. Detail. Currently at view on the High Line Park in NYC. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

For more information regarding the Exhibition “Gravity and Grace” at the Brooklyn Museum click here.


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