Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui
MCASD, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, CA
March 5 - June 28, 2015
El Anatsui’s artworks embody a wide array of artistic techniques and aesthetic traditions, as well as layers of cultural meaning. Tapping into personal experience—his upbringing and education in Ghana, teaching and art making in Ghana and Nigeria, and his global travels—he creates art that represents ideas specific to his life and environment yet also speaks to universal themes of human connection and change.
Gravity and Grace features Anatsui's signature hangings composed of discarded liquor bottle caps, milk tin lids, and aluminum printing plates. Anatsui uses copper wire to connect countless units of cut and folded metal into massive expanses. The frugality of the materials and this patchwork technique suggest the mass consumption habits that his accumulations evidence, and counter the opulence of the finished objects. Whether hanging from the ceiling or on the wall, Anatsui’s works are refigured and draped anew each time they are installed. Malleable and shimmering, they bridge painting and sculpture, taking on a different form with every installation. He wishes for his art to remain fluid, reflecting the ever-changing nature of life. The exhibition's 11 metal objects, along with Anastui's wall reliefs of reclaimed wood and works on paper, will fill MCASD Downtown’s 10,000-square feet of gallery space, with the largest piece spanning 35 feet.
Embracing the African ethos of repurposing used items, Anatsui places a deep value on the human imprint that each object bears. Liquor bottle caps retain an especially potent history, not only for the hands that have touched them but as a symbolic connecting point between Africa, Europe, and the United States, owing to the key role of liquor in the colonization of West Africa and the slave trade.
Anatsui’s recent body of work has an African point of view yet cannot be culturally or geographically pinned down. His alchemical transformations connect with viewers through scale, pattern, light, and texture that, like the micro-history contained within each bottle cap, together leave a spiritual imprint on the mind.
Born in 1944 in Anyako, Ghana, Anatsui has maintained a complex relationship with traditional African art throughout his more than 40-year artistic career. Raised by a Presbyterian minister uncle, Anatsui was oriented from an early age toward Western religious ideals and modes of learning. Anatsui’s education at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana (1965-69) focused on Western art and history, since the institution continued to operate under the British education model during Ghana’s post-colonial transition.
As a result, Anatsui gained much of his knowledge of African art through direct observation of indigenous artists and independent research. While teaching art in Winneba, Ghana in the late 1960s, he studied the techniques of traditional weavers, carvers, drummers, and musicians, whose visual and musical representation of abstract concepts attracted him. Particularly inspired by Akan Adinkra cloth, Anatsui has cited the Adinkra symbol Sankofa, the notion of “looking back and picking up,” as a key concept in his practice. Though his metal wall hangings have been associated with Kente cloth, the artist does not claim it as a direct source stating, “I think that cloth has been maybe an unconscious influence.”
Leaving Ghana in 1975 to teach art at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka was an important catalyst for Anatsui. He states, “If I had lived in Ghana, my mind wouldn’t have roamed, therefore I wouldn’t have expanded my experiences.” In Nigeria, as in Ghana, Anatsui engaged with a variety of local, pre-colonial art forms. During this time, he solidified the core principles of his artistic practice: learn from local artists, use found materials, consider location and environment, embrace the metaphoric potential of artworks.
Anatsui’s art career flourished in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s, where he was highly respected for his innovative use of materials and metaphors rooted in the history of Africa. After participating in an exhibition of African artists in the 1990 Venice Biennale, Anatsui was recognized by critics and scholars around the world. Discovering a sack of discarded bottle caps in 1999 initiated a new chapter in Anatsui’s career that catapulted him onto the global contemporary art stage. In 2010, after 35 years of teaching at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Anatsui retired to focus on his studio work.
“I’ve been to Venice four times now, twice as exhibitor and twice as a visitor. When I first went, twenty years ago, I was cast in the light of an ‘African artist,’ whereas in 2007, I was just another artist. The constraining label of being an artist from somewhere else had disappeared…. The world is beginning to realize that artists are just artists; not ‘European artists,’ not ‘African,’ nor ‘American.’ Art is not the preserve of any one particular people, it’s something that happens around the whole world.” —El Anatsui, 2011
MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART SAN DIEGO