April 28, 2013

El Anatsui: A Romance with Materials

Gli (Wall), 2010 detail; aluminum and copper wire

Hanging in the soaring atrium space at the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, are enormous shimmering curtain walls. For me, their magic lies in the small bits of metal shaped and connected, in a sense woven, to make the large work. I first saw El Anatsui's work several years ago at the Hood Museum and was enchanted by his use of discarded materials, mainly bottle caps, transforming them magically into glittering and colorful "fabrics".

Drifting Continents, 2009, detail; aluminum and copper wire

At this exhibition, I continued to be fascinated by the forms and colors of this recycled trash, where different ways of folding the metal create rich and complex interactions.

Gravity and Grace, 2010, detail; aluminum and copper wire

Even simple patterns of color are beautiful in detail, whether with some random colors crossed by a bent line....

Gravity and Grace, 2010, detail; aluminum and copper wire

...or with larger color-shapes. From a wall label at the exhibition, I learned that El Anatsui developed a palette of 30 different shapes from the basic materials. He has 40 assistants who bend and attach the pieces into color blocks, which he then assembles into a whole. I worry about those assistants handling small bits of metal all day long, but a friend who watched the video on the process assured me that they seemed very happy in their work.

Gravity and Grace, 2010; aluminum and copper wire

Then I came to the pieces themselves, huge works draped on the wall. I have read that there is no predetermined way to hang them, that the artist wants a fluid, unfixed process. When I stepped back from admiring the ordinary materials transformed, I was disappointed in the work itself, which seemed to me without form, and having too random an accumulation of color. It is as though these monumental pieces are just illustrations of what can be done with what is normally thought of as trash, without a compelling presence; the whole does not become greater than the sum of its parts.

Black Block, 2010; aluminum and copper wire

 But then...in the last gallery of the exhibition were two monochrome pieces, one black, one red, that stunned me; they had an emotional power and beauty far beyond what I'd seen in the other galleries. They somehow managed to be both severe and lush at the same time. The large gathered folds are swept into graceful curves, reminding me of medieval sculpture, similarly crisp and solemn.

Black Block, 2010, detail; aluminum and copper wire

The component parts of these Block works are smaller, and similar in color, so don't call as much attention to themselves.

Red Block, 2010; aluminum and copper wire

I am showing this photo of Red Block with figures so you can get a sense of its scale. The one dramatic diagonal fold at top plays against the vertical folds at the bottom, like a sweeping dress gathered in the hand. 

Red Block, 2010, detail; aluminum and copper wire

The sculptural quality of these two works gives them a majestic presence, simple yet deeply evocative. There is something touching and human about these warm curves, as we imagine our clothing, our linens, draped about us. In these two works, lowly materials have truly been transcended. 


  1. Truly enchanting, thanks for sharing

  2. These artistic creations are absolutely amazing. I truly appreciate the use of recycled metals and materials in artwork.