Museum Admission: Monumental Consumption with El Anatsui

The Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective of El Anatsui’s works, entitled “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui,” says and does a lot all at once: it’s high art (gaining international acclaim at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and quite literally, towering above viewers); it’s low art (made of repurposed trash and sometimes resting at and under visitors’ feet at the museum); and all said and done, it’s freaking beautiful.  

1. Gli - view 1
El Anastsui | Gli (Wall), 2010. Aluminum and copper wire, installation at the Brooklyn Museum, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

This show, which has been travelling around the U.S. since the summer of 2012, is truly monumental and is showing simultaneously with another large-scale retrospective of his work, appearing in 11 major cities between 2011 and 2014; in numbers, it is displaying more than 30 works, spanning Anatsui’s artistic career; and in recyclability, it is turning pounds and pounds of garbage and refuse into sheer beauty and wonder. – Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

There is much I love about El Anatsui and his work, so I will count the ways:

1. I heart Ghana (and Star Beer)

Anatsui was born and raised in Ghana, a country that stole my heart more than a decade ago when I started studying there.  Anatsui self-labels his own work as having a “nomadic aesthetic.” But what I would also add is that he has a unique and wildly innovative aesthetic that is all his own, of course linked to a Ghanaian aesthetic as well.  His works are often compared to kente cloth, and rightfully so.  He takes a traditional Ghanaian art, weaving, and reworks it by changing the medium from fiberous threads to found metal and trash.

2. Gli - view 2
El Anastsui | Gli (Wall) – view 2. Image courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

But not just any metal and trash.  He began by using beer bottle caps, and in doing so, he spoke to a long and dark history of colonialism and import substitution.  When Ghana was under British control as the Gold Coast colony, from 1874 until 1957, Great Britain decided to outlaw the distillation of local beers and spirits.  Concurrent to banning the local production of alcohol, they also began importing their own, creating what is known as import substitution, an economic move that would benefit (you guessed it) the British.  Advertisement campaigns from European scotch and gin distilleries, along with other breweries, were tailored to a captive West African market.  (Full disclosure: I have studied and written about these ads for a long time, hence another layer of my love for Anatsui’s work.)

After Ghana gained independence in 1957, and served as a leading force for the sub-Saharan African liberation movement under president Kwame Nkrumah, it returned to producing, brewing, and distilling its own alcohol.  West African companies like Star beer and Club beer helped to turn the local economies back around, reversing the ill-effects of import substitution by re-establishing a local supply for an already-cultivated market.

3. Drifting Continents - detail 1
El Anastsui | Drifting Continents, 2009, Aluminum and copper wire – Detail 1. Image courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

It is with this history in mind that I look to Anatsui’s bottle caps.  Just an inch in diameter, this medium recalls and contains so much history.

2. Conspicuous Consumption
There is much to be said about the ways in which Anatsui transforms bottle caps, cans, and newspapers into objects of beauty.  Walking through the galleries at the museum, you feel as if you are in a wonderland, seeing people through the chain-like netting that hangs from the ceiling and overlaps in lighter and darker patterns.  But there is a disjuncture between seeing, feeling, and experiencing the work when you realize that you are enveloped in a shiny, mesmerizing, jewel-toned land of transformed, sparkly trash.

4. Drifting Continents
El Anastsui | Drifting Continents. Image courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.
5. Drifting Continents - detail 2
El Anastsui | Drifting Continents – Detail 2. Image courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

What is amazing is that although refuse is his medium, it does not detract from one’s experience of his work, and in fact it only enhances its pull.  You literally walk through hanging gauzy sheets of his uniquely “woven” metal netting, seeing other visitors through the sheer panels, and feeling the same wonder as when one walks through a mangrove forest or palm jungle.  The way light plays through the Anatsui’s sculptural sheets feels like an experience.  It is amazing to think of the sheer number of bottle caps used in such a massive piece as Gli (Wall), for instance.

Ecologically speaking, it is equally amazing to think about the infinite transformative possibilities we have at hand in the ways we choose to discard and disregard our trash.  I remember as a kid, learning about the book 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth, and feeling so empowered and inspired with all 50 options I could choose to partake in to help preserve our environment.  Seeing and experiencing Anatsui’s work brings back that same spark, awe, and goose-bumpy feeling.  Seeing children playing with and in his sculptures at the Brooklyn Museum (the more relaxed atmosphere at this museum is one of its many great qualities) reminded me to imagine the literal and metaphorical possibilities we have to transform trash into sheer beauty.

6. Gli- view 3
El Anastsui | Gli (Wall) – view 3. Image courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

Many companies in Ghana have started to collect and use trash for different ends.  There is for instance, that recycles the plastic bags used to package and sell pure water and ice cream in Ghana.  There is also G-lish that takes these same bags, turns them into twine, and weaves them into recycled baskets.  In Holland Cotter’s review for the New York Times, he touches on this history as the source for clichéd thoughts many viewers would associate with Anatsui’s work – aahh, “Africa=recycling,” he says viewers would think…

But seeing an artist like El Anatsui turn trash into something that is purely aesthetic, experiential, historical, and conceptual is different and not at all clichéd.  The way he makes viewers feel, think about, and experience consumption and its inextricable link to Euro-African relations (and the European “need” and desire to consume) is on par with seminal books like Sidney W. Mintz’ Sweetness and Power or Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.  Except that El Anatsui is an artist doing this in an entirely different manner and medium – and without any words… It is layered, complex, and deeply beautiful.  And it is in this beauty that lies the rub.

7. Amemo
Installation view of El Anastsui’s Amemo (Mask of Humankind), 2010. Aluminum and copper wire. Image courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

What do we do…with the overwhelming beauty of such massive volumes of trash?  …with nods to such conspicuous consumption of humankind?  …with the darker underlying history of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery encapsulated in a chainlink netting that also points to this same disturbing history?

We enjoy it.

We experience it.

We live it.

We process it.

And then we enjoy it again.

8. Installation view
Overall installation view at the Brooklyn Museum. Image courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

3. Installation Instability

One of my favorite installation stories belongs to El Anatsui.  It is said that when they were installing his works at an unnamed large museum, the curators were distraught about hanging his work. How should it hang exactly?  Where should the blue metal pieces be facing?  At what height should that corner reach? Where should the folds go – precisely?  Questions for the artist abounded.  But when he responded, he said it didn’t matter.  Hang it where you can, as you can.  Lop it over a wall, hang it from a 20 foot ceiling, or just place it on the ground.

This fluidity is at the heart of El Anatsui’s works.  And it is the fluidity that keeps it fresh, keeps it significant, keeps its multiplicity of meanings, and keeps me wanting more.

9. Ink Splash
El Anastsui | Ink Splash, 2010, Aluminum and copper wire. Image courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.
10. Ink Splash - detail
El Anastsui | Ink Splash – detail. Image courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.
11. Gravity and Grace - detail
El Anastsui | Gravity and Grace, 2010. Aluminum and copper wire. Image courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.


Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” runs at the Brooklyn Museum through August 4th 2013.  To see more of Anatsu’s process, visit PBS Art 21’s segment “Change: El Anatsui,” and the Brooklyn Museum’s video features on installing Gravity and Grace and In Conversation with the artist.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.

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