As much an explorer as artist, El Anatsui transforms found objects (often found on habitual long walks) into objets d’art. Who knew discarded liquor bottle caps and milk can lids found in Nigeria transform to become beautiful enough to hang in a New York Museum?
As an artist, El Anatsui brings what’s described as a “nomadic aesthetic,” to an unusual solo exhibit “Gravity & Grace,” showing at New York’s Brooklyn Museum, through August 4th. Part explorer part artist, Anatsui transforms discarded objects, sometimes found on long walks he habitually takes, into objets d’art. It’s hard to imagine discarded liquor bottle caps and milk can lids transforming enough to merit hanging in a New York art museum.
Combining traditions from his birth country of Ghana, to his home in Nigeria, to other histories from around the globe, the show features more than 30 works in metals and wood that transform these found objects, many discovered in his home town of Nuskka, Nigeria, into sculptures that vary every time they’re shown.
A decade ago, Anatsui began, “a new chapter in his art career,” after discovering a sack of discarded liquor bottle caps. The creations he made from these caps gained him global recognition in the art world and beyond.
In this exhibit, examples of his pieces include long tubes of shimmering gold-silver tones a strewn down the walls and onto the floor. When seen close up, the viewer sees they are nothing more than recycled, metal can lids held together with wire.
“Peak,” an example created in 2010, refers to the “peaked” forms the piece takes on, as well as the brand of condensed milk associated with the lids its made from–“Peak Milk.” The exhibit curators explain Anatsui’s taken “a seemingly local element, which is actually produced in the Netherlands, and sent to West Africa for sale, to produce a universally accessible form.”
As you walk from room to room, viewing massive textiles that hang on the walls, from the ceilings, or are splayed out on the floor, they take on the appearances of airy cloths, mosaic-style massive quilts,giant “paper” bags and more.
But up close you’ll see linked screw-top bottle caps, disfigured metal newspaper printing plates, and discarded tops from distillers of rum, brandy, gin, and other local liquors. Look even closer and you’ll see names of the companies they came from. Tiny scraps of metals, wire and more are strung, twisted, and “woven” together forming materials that reflect countless pieces of the artist’s home country.
A video explains the collaboration that goes into the assembly—a process that employs up to forty assistants who flatten and stitch metal segments of established shapes and colors known as “blocks.” Anatsui says he selects and assembles the blocks into patterns in the studio. The color palate is surprisingly large.
Never the Same Thing Twice
This moveable art ends up in different formations at every installation, as the “nonfixed form,” is important to Anatsui. “I don’t believe in artworks being things that are fixed. You know the artist is not a dictator,” his quote explains. As a result, if you were to see an instillation of his work at a different location later on, you’ll most certainly be seeing something new.
Museum literature explains Anatsui’s artwork is, “both literally and metaphorically about movement.” For example, in his linking of metal scraps, he’s also linking the histories of the individuals who previously touched the objects they came from. “If you touch something, you leave a charge on it, and anybody else touching it connects with you, in a way,” Anatsui is quoted as saying, over a video of him explaining his process. (Although it’s worth noting that signs throughout the exhibit say, “Please do not touch.”) He is associated with “Sankofa,” the notion of “Looking back and picking up.”
Don’t look back–instead pick up and head to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to see this exhibit before it’s gone.