El Anatsui and My Love of Modern Art Museums
In the Vatican Museum in Rome – on your way down to the Sistine Chapel, after weaving your way through rooms and rooms of paintings and tapestries by famous artists from hundreds of years ago – you’ll find a small display of modern art pieces. Or at least I did when I was there in the Fall of 2013. I’d spent hours upstairs taking in dark portraits and religious symbolism of the Italians masters, but while I rushed my way through the seemingly empty mid-level of the museum, something caught my eye. A spread of bright metallic draped across a white wall. It was instantly familiar – like something I’d seen before.
Rewind 4 months to New York City and the Museum of Modern Art. My friend and I had already been wandering the museum for a few hours and I was becoming what you might call “hangry.” Then I came upon something I couldn’t quite figure out. The piece was similar to the one I would find in Rome – metallic with bright golds, but also had patterns of red spilling onto the floor, looking eerily like blood. It was striking and caused me to pause and take a closer look, snapping photos from various angles before moving along.
The artist is El Anatsui, a Ghanaian born sculptor who now spends his time working in Nigeria. He’s been featured in installations in Africa since the 1960s, not long after that in the U.K., eventually reaching worldwide recognition and acclaim. On top of countless installations and awards he has two honorary Doctorates: one from University of Cape Town, the other from Harvard.
The piece at the MoMA was titled Bleeding Takari II, which was apt given my initial reaction to the sections of red flowing from top to floor. A closer look confirmed that the piece was made of metal, closer still I realized what I was looking at: a mosaic of reclaimed refuse, liquor bottle caps smashed flat and woven together. The MoMA’s website elaborates on Anatsui’s use of medium and subject:
For Anatsui, bottle caps represent “the material which was there at the beginning of the contact between two continents.” In the complex networks of exchange established between Africa and Europe as early as the fifteenth century, Europeans used alcohol to barter for African goods, and alcohol eventually became a key commodity in the transatlantic slave trade.
The other piece, the one I’m sure is regularly overlooked in the Vatican Museum, is titled Then, the Flashes of Spirit. And while it lacked the startling quality of the piece in New York, it doesn’t lack the same curious beauty. The simple recognition of the style in my periphery was a surprise after being immersed in classic art and sculpture for weeks.
Due to the way the bottle caps are woven together with wire, each time a piece is installed, it hangs in a different and unique way. It’s very much intentional. In a review and interview on NPRs Morning Edition, Ellen Rudolph – of the Akron Art Museum in Ohio – discusses curating an Anatsui show:
How am I going to just have some kind of vision for what form it should take? How can I impose that on someone else's art? And then once we got the work here and unfolded it on the floor – because it arrives folded up like a blanket –we had to play with it and get a sense of how it moves and how it lays. And that's when we started to really understand that we could form and sculpt the work and it was incredibly exciting. It's an amazing gift that El gives the people who work on his installations.
For Anatsui the process is a collaborative way to help others find their inner artist. In an interview with CNN he says, “It's a versatile form. I think an art form should be a replica of life itself – life is not something which is cut and fixed – it is constantly changing.”
By my visit to Rome I had been traveling off and on for a couple of years and digging deep into the world of modern art museums. I’d enjoyed both the wide variety of work and the spaces that held them. Anatsui’s pieces represented something very real for me; one in a space that could be a bit too avant-garde for my taste, and the other in a space that was a bit too serious. The experience of his pieces are multi-layered, multi-faceted. From a distance: a tapestry. Closer: the mystery of “What is it?” Closer still: the realization that an artist found something so simple, so ugly, and chose to transform it into something beautiful.
In an arts review for The Hudson Review, Karen Wilkins captures her own experience, which to an extent embodies my own:
…and then I saw something inexplicable and ravishingly beautiful: a sort of tapestry of gold and ochre, with flickers of red and black, loosely hung on a distant wall. It seemed heavy, sagging here and there in suave curves. As I approached, I became aware of a dull metallic sheen and of a unifying geometric system, rather like small, rectangular tiles. Whatever I was looking at reminded me, fleetingly, both because of the color and the regular divisions, of Ghanaian kente cloth… But there were countless other associations, too: with the gold ground mosaics of churches in Ravenna, with medieval tapestries, and more.
So I paused there on the way to the Sistine Chapel – a place that houses one of the most famous paintings ever created – to stand in front of an Anatsui piece. To share that connection, to take a short break – both from the hustle of a day full of activity and the long line of ancient history – and a short wander through a contemporary collection. To appreciate art and all of the possibilities it creates for the world.
Since then I’ve visited many more modern art museums: The MAXXI (Rome), the MACBA (Barcelona), the Centre Pompidou (Paris), the MONA (Hobart, Tasmania), the list goes on. And while I haven’t stumbled upon another Anatsui piece, I always seem to find a connection with a new artist or a new work each time. Something that makes me pause, evaluate, step closer and then closer still. And I hope that somewhere down the line one of those will pop up in my periphery, bring a burst of memory, an opportunity to share art and a story, and the cycle will continue.
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