When I saw El Anatsui’s majestic, glittering tapestries for the first time, at Jack Shainman Gallery in 2007, they gave me a visual jolt that instantly vanquished the day’s gallery-going torpor. I stared. What were these amazing objects, so meticulously composed of gold, silver and colored metal, which draped so elegantly, so seductively on the walls and pooled on the floor? Where did they come from? Who had made them?
Just then a shy, white-haired figure materialized out of a back room, looking like the college professor he turned out to be. It was El Anatsui himself, who was born 1944 in Anyako, Ghana. In 1975 he became professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria, in the smallish city of Nsukka. Over the years he had tried out a variety of materials, including ceramics, paint and wood that he shaped with a chainsaw. After a time spent making those fairly interesting but au fond provincial abstract sculptures in wood, in 1999 Anatsui began his adventures in recycling, constructing floor and wall pieces from locally gathered garbage. He made his early 3D sculptures from the lids from discarded evaporated milk cans, rusted-out metal graters and old metal printing press plates.
His breakthrough, the kind of intricate metallic cloths that had had such an effect on me, required a particular kind of refuse: thousands of used aluminum bottle caps, rubbish from empty bottles -- many of which had held the booze still wrecking so many Nigerian lives. To make his grand tapestries, whose patterns often echo the native Kente cloth that originated with the Akan people of Ghana, the metal bits are cleaned, sorted by color, flattened out and arranged into undulating, textured patterns. They are then laced together with almost invisible bits of copper wire by teams of between five and 40 workers. The artist oversees, supervises and edits each labor-intensive, monumental composition in a studio housed in an old warehouse building on the dusty outskirts of the city.
By the time I met him, Anatsui’s vast installation in the Arsenale at the 2007 Venice Biennale had already had catapulted him onto the world art stage. The unmistakably ambitious scale and beauty of his work fed directly into a maturing global consciousness. It was a eureka moment -- a heightened acknowledgement of an emerging non-Western contemporary art able to go beyond sheer ethnicity. In El Anatsui the art world had found an artist who could skillfully and ambitiously transform dross into gold, changing refuse into awesome, universal beauty.
The works in the current show (some extremely large) skirt the challenging issues of repetition by incorporating some new kinds of serpentine patterns, made from colored brand labels and tiny, textured circles that in other pieces create a fuzzy texture when viewed from afar. The gallery’s two large spaces and two smaller rooms provide backdrops for seven regal, fluid mosaics of silver, gold, reds, yellows, blues and other colors. Color segues are simultaneously flamboyant and subtle. Repetitive shapes are massed or arranged in diagonal, checkered, or horizontal and vertical sequences. No photographs can do them justice. And each piece never hangs exactly the same way twice, since the artist expressly is not interested in any set arrangement. His work may be draped on wall and floor at the whim of the curator.
Scale is an essential component for the effectiveness of the work. At once enormous and compellingly intimate, the great undulating cloaks of metal are textiles transmuted into art. Any arguments about whether this is postmodernist folk art or a kind of craft writ large miss the point. Such critical muttering derives a boring puritanical antipathy to decorative beauty and to the westernized hierarchy of the materials we traditionally consider acceptable fodder for high art.
After the sheer visual impact of the show, it is hard not to ponder the political implications of Anatsui’s magnificent cloths. The works unmistakably refer to African traditional cultural practices and forms at the same time that they transcend them. The alchemical transformation of discarded metal fragments into art provides a sobering reminder of the mixed consequences of former colonialism, current globalization, rampant consumerism and waste. But this opulent beauty exudes power beyond political argument, embodying some hope for the way humans can change damage into progress. Says Anatsui, "I am changing the meaning of bottle caps. Metaphorically I am working with the lifting of the spirits."
El Anatsui, Feb. 11-Mar. 13, 2010, at Jack Shainman Gallery, 513 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011. An installation of El Anatsui’s work is also on view at the Rice University Art Gallery in Houston through March 14, 2010.
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is an art critic, biographer and art historian who lives and works in New York.