Brooklyn Museum, New York
February 8, 2013 - August 4, 2013
Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s retrospective exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum evidences his “nomadic aesthetic,” a language the Museum ascribes to his interest in the circulation of forms and materials, as well as his own history of constant geographical flux. A landscape of flux is quite literally suggested in his work, Currents, a two-dimensional wall relief illustrative of a river, made of wood and paint wherein he utilized a chainsaw as a drawing tool. In this piece, his choice of material (i.e. power tools) is not only laden with implications of colonialism, but his process, too, alludes to periods of arbitrary violence across the history of Africa. This is suggestive of his autobiography as an artist living in Ghana when it was a British colony, schooled in British methodologies of art production, but with an inwardly fostered criticality and interest in pursuing pre-colonial African culture. Also, the accessibility of his materials allows him to communicate the revelatory poetry of earthbound objects.
At age fifty-four, in 1998, Anatsui discovered twist-off liquor bottle tops made by Nigerian distilleries as his preferred mimetic unit. This locally made material is representative of a long history of slavery, wherein production of rum (as introduced to Africa with colonialism) advanced the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and ironically, later on, African liquor brands appeared in masses. Anatsui reshapes and rewires fragmented litter to compose silk-like sheets. This process is one of signification wherein the bottle caps, heavy with cultural implications, are strung together into a billowy, fabricated map.
This process is evident in his work, Gli (Wall). In the Ewe language (the language of Anatsui’s ancestors), the word “gli” can translate to mean “wall,” “disrupt,” or “story.” In different places Anatsui visited—namely Berlin, Jerusalem, and Notsie—he found walls to exist as a disruptive barrier that in blocking ocular view gives new potentiality to the imaginative eye. As Anatsui says, “walls reveal more than they hide.” Although intricate in their construction, Anatsui’s installation travels by suitcase. Once unpacked, whoever installs the finished piece may hang and drape it as they please—giving his works over entirely to the impermanence inherent to movement.