Arguably Africa's most important and influential contemporary artist, El Anatsui is the subject of a spectacular retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum (through Aug. 4), his first New York museum solo. To coincide with "Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui," Icarus Films recently released the hourlong documentary "Fold, Crumple, Crush: The Art of El Anatsui" on DVD. Directed by Susan Vogel, the founding director of New York's Museum for African Art, the film lacks much in the way of insight into the artist's private life. However, it provides a useful complement to the museum show and helps explicate the artist's studio practice as well as the technical intricacies and conceptual nuances of his work.
The Ghanaian-born, Nigeria-based artist, 69, has been showing since the mid-1980s, starting with monumental abstracted figurative works in stone and concrete, often commissions for public spaces in Ghana and Nigeria, which are discussed in the film but absent from the museum exhibition. He hit his stride in the early 1990s with a series of modular abstract wood reliefs, which he began to show internationally. These medium-size, multi-panel wall-hung pieces are carved with elaborate patterns of geometric shapes, sometimes augmented with passages of colorful painted lines. Several strong examples are on view in the Brooklyn show, including Conspirators (1997), in which fragments of scrawled faces and figures appear interspersed among the geometric forms.
Today, Anatsui is best known for enormous wall reliefs in metal, featuring a kind of glittering chainmail fabric made of thousands of found liquor bottle caps, tin can lids and other detritus, connected by bits of copper wire. He garnered worldwide acclaim for these sumptuous works with a major installation at the 2007 Venice Biennale exhibition curated by Robert Storr. Although predominantly silver or gold, some areas of these compositions contain passages of color in refined geometric patterns that correspond to traditional West African kente cloth. The expansive, opulent surfaces also relate to Color Field painting, à la Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, and to certain forms of lyrical abstraction. In the type of metal used, specifically pieces from discarded liquor bottles, many critics have recognized in Anatsui's work a wry statement about social conditions such as joblessness and alcoholism in West Africa, as well as environmental concerns.
This group of works is the focus of the exhibition as well as the film. El Anatsui arranges the metallic material in enormous compositions that cover the walls and sometimes spill onto the floor. Certain pieces in the current show, such as Red Block, from the Eli Broad collection, and Black Block, recently acquired by the Brooklyn Museum (both 2010), appear as gathered, billowing curtains protruding from the wall and cascading to the floor. Despite the simplicity of the ingredients, these two imposing monochrome pieces impart an almost architectonic sense of scale and structure, as well as an exhilarating Baroque theatricality.
It takes a village to make these works. As evident in the film, El Anatusi employs some 25 craftsmen from Nsukka, Nigeria, his hometown. (In the documentary, at least, no women appear in the studio.) The film reveals in detail the labor-intensive technique of cutting and pounding the metal bits, punching holes in the pieces and fixing them together in long strips or small patches in a variety of colors and patterns. Assistants and commentators describe the painstaking process on film. Painter and writer Alexi Worth, visiting Anatsui in Africa, accompanies him to a sprawling junk depot, where the artist buys the raw materials for his work and discusses his method of recycling refuse into fine art.
Back at the studio, he creates his vast compositions on the floor, calling for various types of the metallic mesh to be pieced together by the assistants. Despite a rather laid-back stance, the artist acts as a film director, reconfiguring the compositions until he gets the right look.
In each of the various venues, Anatsui installs the works differently, suggesting that the works are in a state of flux, which, in the artist's view, has broad implications. In the exhibition's catalogue, he says, "I believe that human life is not something which is cut and dried. It is something which is constantly in a state of change. So many years ago I was a toddler, and now I am old and gray-haired. If things were not so, I would have remained a toddler, and I want my artworks to replicate that experience."
"Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui" was organized by the Akron Art Museum, where it debuted June 17-Oct. 7, 2012. Fold, Crumple, Crush: The Art of El Anatsui, 53 minutes, 2011, directed by Susan Vogel, was released by Icarus Films on DVD and VOD on Apr. 9.