BY ADEYEMI OSHUNRINADE
May 5, 2013
Bottle caps, milk containers and waste paper bags are not the kind of stuffs you think could be transformed into a work of art. They’re what you find in garbage bins and landfills thrown away and discarded as unusable. In the artistic world of El Anatsui, life for such wastes begins when others think they are of no benefit. Anatsui resurrects soda caps, beer tops and aluminum containers to create artistic beauty and then leaves you with a sense of interpretation that would make one wonder what he was thinking as he made meaning of his art.
Anatsui’s work “Gravity and Grace” currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art will leave you agape, as you make sense of his creativity and the message his art conveys while making bottle caps into tapestries with which he transforms his understanding of African art and history into shapes and arrangements, a centerpiece of this artistic creation that originated at the Akron Art Museum in Ohio.
El Anatsui was born in Anyako, Ghana in 1944. A member of the Ewe tribe, Anatsui obtained his college degree from the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, where he studied Western Sculptural Traditions and Methods. In 1975 Anatsui moved to Nigeria to teach art at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, where the Nigeria based artist has resided ever since. Anatsui believes living in a foreign nation and away from his homeland, helped build his artistic sense and creativity. It made him “uncomfortable” and being uncomfortable helped the artistic creation that prepared his art for the global audience.
Earlier artworks by Anatsui are painted wood relief conspirators (1997) that allow the viewer a glimpse of how his work has progressed and the common themes that run through its practice. The viewer sees the picture of an artist interested in the mutability of forms, using personal and historical narratives to create artistic content. Among his works is Gli, sheets of delicate metal rings, arranged to create walls suspended at various heights to form a fence, meant to block the view from outside.
Gli is an Ewe word meaning wall, disrupt, or story. Anatsui created Gli to mirror the Berlin Wall, Jerusalem and Notsie a town in modern-day Togo, where based on history the Ewe people congregated before fleeing an oppressive ruler sometimes in the 17th century. The symbolism of Gli is to convey a sense of ancient sorrow, the memory of powerful walls and obstructions designed to limit freedom.
Gli is torn, crumpled and reminiscent of a curtain in places but as one move around the space, the sheets shift and glimmer becoming lively and revealing more. Anatsui believes a wall can only shield what it’s made to obstruct but as one get closer to the wall, you can actually see more. The symbolic narrative in Anatsui’s work also depicts the history of migration, a period when Ghanaians flee their homeland to seek economic opportunities in Nigeria.
Waste Paper Bags (2003), an exhibit with seven grey forms, modeled on the large, red and blue stripped, bags strong to carry heavy loads are a regular occurrence at a West Africa bus station or market place, the-go-to bag for a woman with a heavy load or a long distance to travel. Known as “Ghana-Must-Go,” the bags symbolize a period in the 80’s when migration of Ghanaian refugees into Nigeria led to tension between Ghana and Nigeria. Creating the bags, Anatsui used aluminum printing with stories of contemporary Nigerian life. His version of the “Ghana-Must-Go,” is large enough to transport a family but too heavy to move, which could be Anatsui’s way of explaining the agony of Ghanaian refugees as they flee Nigeria.
The uniqueness of Anatsui’s works as products of wastes sets him apart as a contemporary artist deserving global attention. The raw materials-bottle tops, lids of tins of evaporated milk from trash, wired together to make sculptures and fabrics all have global linkage and are available everywhere on earth. They are narrowly construed as of no artistic value until Anatsui stumbled on them outside a distillery in Nsukka. Those wastes he thought, could be rolled into tubes, or folded into rosettes or crushed like soda cans to create meaning.
The small pieces could be arranged into a chain, a basket weave and any other patterns of artistic value. The bottle tops also come in different colors like red, gold, black and yellow good enough for Byzantine Mosaic and Klimt paintings. With the flexibility that go with Anatsui’s art, his apprentices and curators may move his arrangements and ruffle the surfaces of the wall hangings as they think fit to create meaning. In a documentary on his work at the Brooklyn Museum, Anatsui observed that while moving one of his sculptures, it takes different shapes to create different meanings, leaving the audience to interpret and make artistic sense of the sculpture.
El Anatsui’s exhibition is available through August 4 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Dr. Adeyemi Oshunrinade [E. JD] is the author of ‘Wills Law and Contests,’ ‘Constitutional Law-First Amendment’ and ‘SAVING LOVE’ available at http://www.amazon.com/author/adeyemioshunrinade. Follow on Twitter @san0670.
- El Anatsui exhibition (processandskills.com)
- El Anatsui (thestarryeye.typepad.com)
- Museum Admission: Monumental Consumption with El Anatsui (newamericanpaintings.wordpress.com)
- Gravity and Grace: Cross-Departmental Collaboration at the Brooklyn Museum (artmuseumteaching.com)
- City Art Lab: Thinking Bigger (ccnyarted.wordpress.com)
- Gallery Beat for Springtime! (karinaschroeder.com)
- Museum and Gallery Listings for April 19-25 (nytimes.com)
- The Brooklyn Museum to Celebrate Brooklyn’s Creative Community at Tonight’s Artists Ball (complex.com)