El Anatsui, the artist behind more than 30 works at Brooklyn Museum this month, will knock the wind out of you. There are two ways in which this will happen; you’ll be stunned either by the shimmering, monumental beauty of the work or the weighty historical narrative that blasts through Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui. Or both.
Anatsui—who is Ghana-born but Nigeria-based—is that rare kind of artist whose work is both beautiful and critical, ornate and intellectual. He is best known for his hanging sculptures made out of bottle and can tops he collects from around Nsukka, pieced and patched together by a group of workers in his local studio. These are "non-fixed forms," meaning that the jingly aluminum sheets are transported to the gallery in a suitcase and hung according to the whims of the curator. Each time a piece is shown, it looks different, folds in novel ways, and reflects thousands of light points in new ways. "I don’t believe in artworks being things that are fixed," Anatsui says. "You know, the artist is not a dictator."
After building a successful career based on appropriating local Kente cloth symbology (and, for a time, sculpting with a chainsaw), Anatsui started collecting liquor bottle caps in the 1980s. The caps—which come from local Nigerian distilleries—offered him what The New York Times calls "a locally made, in ready supply and culturally loaded" material. Rum, you see, is a by-product of the slave trade. The triangle of trade between Africa, the Caribbean, and the colonial powers went like this: Europeans bartered for slaves using manufactured goods. Then, the slaves would be sent to the New World in exchange for sugar (and other raw goods). In the Americas, the sugar was turned into rum, which went back to Europe to fund another round of the cycle. Soon, distilleries popped up along the Gold Coast, including Nigeria.
Colonialism asserts itself in subtle and obvious ways, both in the names of the liquor brands (Dark Sailor, Chelsea) and in the titles of the works themselves. In Drifting Continents (2009), eight luminant, gold textiles hang on the gallery wall, connected by a single continuous thread of colorful tops. Other works address problems within Nigeria and Africa itself, like the towering Waste Paper Bags, a standing sculpture made from discarded commercial printing plates. As the curators point out, the plates look a lot like a loaded symbol of Nigerian-Ghanian conflict. "The forms resemble large woven bags that became known as ‘Ghana-must-go’ bags in the early 1980s, when Nigerians hostile toward Ghanaian refugees who had fled political and economic unrest suggested they pack their belongings in such sacks and return home," they explain.
Anatsui’s work reverberates off of works from African-American artists in Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection, creating feedback loops between American and African experiences of postcolonial identity. The museum owns several Basquiat paintings, and though their life experiences couldn’t be more different, it’s hard not to think of them while wandering through the show—Basquiat and Anatsui tread the same thematic ground. The triangle trade is something Basquiat obsessed over, repeating words like "gold," "sugar," and "rum" again and again in his paintings. Anatsui’s tone—his rich, rococo wall hangings—is completely at odds with Basquiat’s. But you get the sense that they’re grappling with the same thing, these ghosts that take the form of consumer goods like liquor bottles and sugar bags.
Check out Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui until August 4.