Tuesday, December 30, 2008

El Anatsui

No less than the great twentieth century innovator, Pablo Picasso exclaimed, “My greatest artistic revelation came about when I was suddenly struck by the sublime beauty of the sculpture done by the anonymous artists of Africa. In their passionate and rigorous logic, these works of sacred art are the most powerful and beautiful products of the human imagination.”

Well, African art is anonymous no longer and still breaking unprecedented ground. Almost a hundred years later the art world has finally come full circle, with the advent of a year long celebration in London of Africa 2005 and the multiple exhibitions of the recent work of Ghanian/Nigerian artist, El Anatsui. Featured along with several high profile contemporaries from the African continent, art that may once have been called ‘tribal/primitive’ has now given way to the future and inspired a new artistic and cultural, arena in the ‘transvangarde’. A professor of sculpture from the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, Anatsui both scholar and artist forged a prolific career from the early 1960’s with exhibitions around the globe working in clay, wood, metal and recycled objects. Using a chainsaw and pneumatic tools he carves wooden frieze like reliefs, creating a powerful, dynamic of ideographic, abstraction which are then charred or painted, infused with and accessing the complex history of colonialism in Africa.

Anatsui now steps up to the plate with a mesmerizing collection of work that breaks barriers and moves beyond indigenous tradition. With subtle improvisation, and his inspired handling of metal bottle tops, crushed flat, then tied with wire he weaves together metal ‘textiles’ like ‘Earth Cloth’, ‘Young Woman’s Cloth’, ‘Flag for a New World’ and ‘Peak Project’ to form monumental swaths of metallic, shimmering color and multi-dimensional construct. The visual field is awash in a gorgeous mosaic that at one and the same time creates a huge yet fragile splendor, a tender and barbaric vitality. Think of standing in awe before the mosaics of Ravenna for the first time without ‘reading’ the content. Ancient glamour is made new, while proportion and sensibility are recast to the present. His work is flush with the concept of ‘remix’, a transformation of recycled waste into a glittering celebration of a global, ritual identity outside the confines of indigenous, local connotation. The rigorous opulence of El Anatsui’s work awakens and charges the mind’s eye with an immediate, radical force reaching far beyond even the most powerful synthetic film/cinematic visual. The viewer is transported through a phantasmagoria of scale, color, surface, shine and movement that delivers on the scale of nature’s own radiant visual bounty. This is not art to find clever, to dissect or to bolster tired post-modern cliches but rather art that charges and creates a force field of universal allure. The frame has long since been dispensed with in western art and never so powerfully as these pieces show now.

The complex nature of ‘Signature’ revolves around the methodology and production of art…taking fallen timber, stacking it, painting it, placing it solemnly in a quiet forest to create a tableau of the simplest arrangement…culling abundance, marking it, coloring it…this is where the influence of art begins, as the viewer steps forward into the magic, the transformation…a deferral of meaning with only the pure desire to view and the pure felt vitality remaining.

Africa 2005 is a year long cultural celebration in London. El Anatsui’s work shown at Hayward Gallery, London as part of ‘Africa Remix’ show, October Gallery, London and ‘Man Cloth’ is at the British Museum, London.

Stephanie Bell Behnke

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