Sunday, April 10, 2011

El Anatsui at Davis Museum, Wellesley College

Last week I had the extraordinary opportunity of seeing the first U.S. installation of a career retrospective of El Anatsui's work and then hearing him talk about his work in person. Why, you may wonder, is an international artist of Anatsui's status and a resident of Nigeria giving a talk in such an unexpected place as Wellesley College and why would that site be selected as the destination for the first U.S. showing of this important show? Funny you should ask.

El Anatsui with one of his wooden sculptures at the Davis Museum (Photo by Bill Greene from the Boston Globe)

In the art world, as in every other type of world, it's all who you know, and Lisa Binder, curator of this nearly-five-decade retrospective of Anatsui's work, was a Wellesley grad who knew Anatsui from her visits to his studio in Nigeria. In addition, she is Assistant Curator at the Museum for African Art in New York, the show's ultimate U.S. destination after several other stops. This was a major coups for Wellesley, and they got support for the exhibition from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation to supplement their own in-house sources of funding.

"Plot a Plan" from the Davis Museum website

Perhaps you have read one of my other posts about El Anatsui, such as in February 2009 or August 2009 or February 2010 or March 2010. In those posts I gave a lot of background about Anatsui and many, many shots of his work found online and taken in person at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, his dealer. What a great privilege to see and hear him in person and to see the course of his work over time.

The Wellesley Experience
Wellesley is all about the academic approach, so they prefaced the talk by Anatsui with a tour of the exhibition led by a 2010 Wellesley grad and curatorial assistant, Kelley Tialiou, who did an excellent, very poised job of explaining the work to the 30-40 people who accompanied her on the tour. I was one of them, although I didn't really feel the need for guidance, but I arrived just in time and decided to join the herd. I did learn some things about the work and was able to take notes throughout--with a pen.

"Plot a Plan" detail - from the Davis Museum website

Despite my being permitted a pen, in keeping with the seriousness of their mission, the Davis Museum guards are extremely conscientious: if you come within a millimeter of crossing the line of tape on the floor in front of a piece, they will give you a sharp "Ma'am" and motion you back with a reproving look. Of course the tape is placed so far away from the wall where the piece is hanging that you are unable to read the liquor caps and labels that comprise the piece. Note to self: if you want to read the labels, go to Anatsui's gallery where you can come as close as you like to the wall and even look behind the piece.

Hanging Methods
One thing I noticed about the installation of Anatsui's brand new wall piece, Stressed World, (just completed in 2011 and no image available) is that there were big chunks of white foam rubber behind it. Since this new piece is much more airy and weblike than usual, the foam is very apparent, especially up close. As I recall, at Anatsui's New York gallery the work was draped over a few strategically placed drywall screws and it looked just fine. Perhaps it's a case of over-seriousness, in keeping with the general mission and academic rigor of the whole enterprise. (In other words, overkill.)

"Sacred Moon" from the Davis Museum website

Even before I heard him say it with my own ears, I had read that Anatsui is not a stickler for hanging his work in particular ways. In fact, he wants people to feel free to install his work as they see fit, only suggesting that he prefers it not be flat against the wall but have ripples, folds and bulges. "Everybody's way is right," is what he actually said and, "There is an artist in everybody."  To demonstrate the extremes to which installers go, take a peak at this short video showing the installation at the Davis Museum. Note that this is NOT on the Wellesley website but on the website of the Museum for African Art. In fact, you will not find much about the show on Wellesley's website except three photos and a short text. (In other words, stingy and afraid someone will take the images and use them in a blog.)

Installing El Anatsui from Wellesley College on Vimeo.

When I Last Wrote to You About Africa
Now that I have spewed some of my resentment about being treated like a non-academic moron by Wellesley, on with the post. The show title is "When I LastWrote to You About Africa," the title being taken from the piece below.

Anatsui's 1986 wooden wall sculpture "When I Last Wrote to You About Africa" 

The image just above is from the website of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, the location of the first stop for the show before coming to Wellesley. This piece is five or six feet high by maybe 36 inches wide. The apparent depth is illusionistic because it's really only a couple of inches deep. It is carved and burned with symbols Anatsui invented or borrowed from Adinkra. (See my post here for an explanation of Adinkra.)

Here's another very short video that tours the show at ROM and shows many of the pieces in the Wellesley show. It also features Anatsui himself talking about his work.

Although we in the U.S. know Anatsui primarily for his metal cloths, he worked mainly in wood for a number of years, supplemented with metal, ceramic and painting on paper or canvas with oil, acrylic and watercolor. There were examples in the show of all these mediums plus found and manipulated objects. One of his hallmarks is that just about all his work is modular, that is, it is comprised of pieces or sections that can be rearranged. The work is not static. Even the piece above is composed of slats that look as though they could be assembled in a different order--although that would disturb the 3D illusion. Anatsui feels that chance should  play an important role in art as it does in life.

Example of a wooden wall sculpture from 1992

Another sculpture, unsure of date, "Kente Rhapsody"

The pieces shown above were not in the show but represent the type of work that was included. I had never seen this wooden work before and thought it was very strong. I hope you can see that the work has some dimension to it and is composed of modular pieces or strips. Carving, burning and painting are used on the wood.

Another Powerful Work
The ROM site says that the show consists of more than 60 pieces. There was a lot of work and I can't mention it all, but one piece that  I did like a lot after it was explained to me by the tour guide was "Open(ing) Market." This consisted of more than 700 lidded metal boxes and three lidded metal trunks arranged in a close grouping on the floor with all the boxes facing in one direction. The guide told us that these boxes were made from flattened cans and metal containers. The outside of the boxes were painted black with red designs (sort of a series of half-moon paint strokes) on the lids. The inside of the boxes were collaged or printed with colorful advertising papers or the painted colors and names from cans. The lids of the boxes were arranged so that some were open, some partially closed and some closed altogether. They represented an African market, with the lids being shades over market stalls that would be raised or lowered depending on the sun or time of day.

"Open(ing) Market" at the ROM show - not displayed as well here as at Wellesley

This image above is from the ROM (a horribly distracting gallery with walls and floors a nasty dark blue). The installation at Wellesley allowed you to see the piece from back and front so that when you saw it from the back, it was all black and red, but when you walked around to the front, you were hit with a burst of color from the opened lids.

Detail of opened boxes and lids. (This mishmash installation at ROM does not do justice to the work. which looks better arranged in a more orderly way or spread out more.)

In the Sebastian Smee review of the show in the Boston Globe, he quotes Anatsui referring to the trunks in this piece as being the type that were used for children sent away to boarding school or on a trip. Anatsui said, "I saw them and my mind was instantly carried back to childhood days."

New Discoveries About Anatsui
Although I've done as much researching on Anatsui as I could for all those posts I wrote, there were some new things I learned about him from this show and talk. For one thing, his first name is "El" and that's what friends call him. He also signs his work that way. I thought the El was an "el", Spanish for "the."

Anatsui at Wellesley

Sebastian Smee said that Anatsui is the youngest of 32 children and that he was educated at a Presbyterian mission where he was completely isolated from his culture. Anatsui spoke about his education being European, but did not go into this much detail.

Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu

The talk that Anatsui gave was actually a conversation between him, the curator Lisa Binder and Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu of Princeton University. Professor Okeke-Agulu has known Anatsui for some years and was his studio assistant in the past. His contribution to the conversation was invaluable in that he was able to expand on Anatsui's comments and give them more of an understandable context. He also had less of an accent and was easier to understand. Anatsui seems to be a quiet person who does not talk a lot and does not project his voice. I don't think he is used to addressing an audience. (Click here for a link to Okeke-Agulu's blog post about the Anatsui show at ROM where you will see images of the show with the dark blue walls and floor.)

Cultural Influence
Anatsui said that his European education had prevented him from finding artistic inspiration in his own culture. The professor said that in the '60s many African artists were actively looking to their culture to see how they could express themselves and reference their African heritage instead of being locked into the European models. They rejected the Western mode of image making and materials. Anatsui mentioned going to the National Cultural Center of Ghana and finding out about his own culture. He began his more African-influenced work with wooden trays similar to those found in the market and used to display goods. He carved and branded symbols into the trays and displayed them on the wall. The show included some of those trays and you can also see them in the video from ROM.

The young Anatsui working on a ceramic sculpture in 1979

Working Methods
Anatsui taught for many years at the University of Nigeria and has recently retired. He is 67 now and has an international art career with his work collected by museums around the world and featured in impressive exhibitions and collections. The first time he traveled to the U.S. in 1980, he came to Massachusetts, and now that is the first U.S. location for his retrospective. I had forgotten reading that his first trip was to a now-defunct artists' colony way out here in western Mass., in Cummington (now renowned as the home of Rachel Maddow). He said that was where he was introduced to the chainsaw--a tool he really enjoyed and later put to good use in breaking up big chunks of work into pieces with ragged edges.

Assistants in Anatsui's studio working with liquor bottle tops and wraps

In his studio in Nigeria, Anatsui works with a number of assistants to make the metal tapestry work. He said that most of the young men (all men) who work with him are recent graduates who are waiting to get into college (I believe he said). LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) recently purchased one of Anatsui's works and included the image above in an online story about it that also includes some other interesting photos of work in Anatsui's studio. Anatsui has apparently worked with assistants from the beginning of his career and also employed them in carving and branding wood under his direction. He said that he never makes drawings in preparation for work but likes to work directly and changes his plans as the work develops. "The more organic the better" is the way he expressed it since the work develops slowly and organically and without a fixed idea. He also reuses pieces of his metal tapestries when they come back to the studio after being in an exhibition and considers that work "readymade" to be incorporated as other readymade objects are into new work.

Big Themes
Although Anatsui has hit the major leagues with his metal tapestries, he had a whole career as a sculptor and teacher prior to that where he worked in a range of mediums. Lisa Binder, the curator of the retrospective, said that the show at Wellesley was arranged so that from any perspective, a viewer would see work in more than one medium. Emphasizing medium is probably not the way I would have organized it, but I can see that it would be difficult to make sense of such a large body of work for viewers.

To sum up, as I see it, Anatsui's work expresses a love of experimentation and invention. He is ready to see the usual from a different perspective. He has a love of language and symbols and a great appreciation for his culture. He is not afraid to make beautiful work (what he calls "ocular beauty"), but on closer inspection, the beauty has deeper content. He enjoys manipulating mediums and finds poetic expression in text, line and form. He is willing to surrender his work to chance and change and welcomes that interference with his prior intention as it creates unexpected results and mirrors life itself.

Finally, here is another video of El Anatsui--this time at the installation of "Between Heaven and Earth" at the Metropolitan Museum. (Of course his manipulation of the piece is contrary to the way he likes to do it, but perhaps that's the price an artist pays for selling his work to a museum. If only they hadn't put it on that gold wall.)


lisa said...

Fantastic post with my coffee this morning-thanks

Leslie Avon Miller said...

Great post Nancy. You are always a wealth of information and a tireless advocate for the arts. I'm going to come back and follow the links. I'm glad I read some of your other posts on this artist, so I had a context.

Thanks so much Nancy.

Anonymous said...

Rich post Nancy. So much depth, thank you for this. I'm a big fan and am looking forward to seeing the show too.

deborah from collagewhirl said...

Really interesting--I find a lot to like about El Anatsui's work and also his concepts, thanks to your explanations. Planning to visit all the links as well!

Richard Marshall said...

Interesting stuff. Thanks:)

Anonymous said...

Fun to read and so much information. Great way to start the day!

ArtPropelled said...

Thank you, thank you, Nancy! What a wonderful post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Nancy-- I have subscribed to your blog for a while and find it is always more than worth my time. This was a particularly interesting and informative post. I can tell it is a lot of work to put these together and just wanted to express my appreciation.


Tamar said...

Thank you for this wonderful post Nancy. I was unfamiliar with El Anatsui's work prior to the metallic wall tapestries and appreciate all the information you provided. Looking forward to seeing this show when it reaches NY.

joanne Mattera said...

If I were giving out blog grants, I'd give out one. Great job!

Nancy Natale said...

Thank you all for your comments! It IS a lot of work to put a post like this together with all the links and references, but I wanted to do justice to Anatsui and his rich work. An exhibition that shows a body of work made over the course of a lifetime deserves an in-depth response and a respectful explanation. I hope that many readers will get a chance to see this show or be on the lookout for other opportunities to see Anatsui's work in person.

susan vogel said...

Terriffic post. You might be interested in the new film Fold Crumple Crush: The Art of El Anatsui, shot in Venice and Nsukka (53minutes distributed by Icarus Films). It will be presented soon in Satatoga Springs and Williamstown. The Trailer, Pictures, Screenings, and other information is on

Daniella Woolf said...

Thank you, Nancy for doing a great job. A very inspiring post!