Geoff Wisner

From Akron to New York to Des Moines, Miami, and San Diego, the major exhibition Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui has been making its way around the country.

This summer in New York, El Anatsui’s work was hard to miss. In addition to the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, his sculpture Broken Bridge II could be seen looming over the coneflowers and gourmet ice cream carts on the High Line.

After a long career of teaching and artistic practice in Nsukka, the Nigerian university town, El Anatsui has achieved extraordinary success with work that is not only monumental but strikingly beautiful.  Although this is not always an advantage in the world of serious art, Anatsui executes his vision brilliantly.

El Anatsui, portrait.

El Anatsui. Broken Bridge II on Manhattan's High Line.

Anatsui has absorbed what he could from a classical art training, from West African traditions, and from friends and colleagues in Nigeria. He has drawn from his environment, taken advantage of accidents, used what he found useful, and left the rest behind. He has succeeded in creating works that no one else could have created and that defy easy definitions.

Anatsui is an artist who has paid his dues, and paid them in the continent of his birth. Born and educated in Ghana, he began teaching at the University of Nigeria in 1975, and has lived and worked in Nsukka ever since. Judging from interviews and the documentaries of Susan Mullin Vogel, he is unassuming but firm in his convictions.

Anatsui is also appealingly inclusive in the way he practices his art. For years he has gone to the African marketplace and countryside for his materials: wooden platters, broken pots, worn-out mortars, rusted cassava graters, and most recently, the caps, bands and rings from the bottlers of Nigerian liquor.

The shimmering sheets of metal that he creates from these bottle tops are so labor-intensive that one man could not make them on his own. Therefore, Anatsui has created a studio in Nsukka where dozens of assistants shape bits of aluminum into squares, flowers, and bands, then stitch them together with copper wire. In this way the artist not only involves his community in the creative process, he also provides employment and shares the wealth in the way that is expected of a successful West African man.

Anatsui welcomes collaboration in his work. He will tailor a piece to its surroundings — for instance, enlarging Broken Bridge II, already his largest work ever, to fit a brick wall overlooking Manhattan's High Line. A sculpture that hangs straight in a high-ceilinged museum may flow onto the floor when installed in a gallery with low ceilings. Black Block and Red Block, which were hung with gentle ripples in Osaka in 2010, looked quite different in Brooklyn three years later. A heavy swag across Red Block made it resemble a drape slowly falling to the floor, while Black Block appeared to be covering a violent struggle.

El Anatsui. Black Block.

El Anatsui. Red Block.

Right at the entrance of the Brooklyn Museum show, you found one of the artist’s most ambitious works installed in a space that seemed intended for it: the round, high-domed Cantor Gallery, with natural light filtering in through a skylight. Here the five panels that make up Gli or Wall (the Ewe word also means “disrupt” or “story”) hung from wires: three of them parallel to each other and two more hanging crosswise. Each was predominantly silvery-gold and more or less transparent. Some touched the floor, some hung high above it, some were orderly sheets of lacy metal, and others chaotic patchworks. As you walked around them they overlapped, showed through, and revealed each other in intriguing ways.

El Anatsui. Gli (Wall)

Anatsui claims his work was inspired by the walled cities of Berlin, Jerusalem, and Notsie in Togo — walls, we may notice, that have very different meanings. The Berlin wall was the hated symbol of the conflict between two political systems. Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall is the cherished surviving remnant of the temple of the ancient Israelites, and contested ground for today’s Israelis and Palestinians.

The story of the wall of Notsie (or Notsé), the ancestral home of Anatsui’s Ewe people, is less well known and perhaps worth retelling and recontextualizing. The Asogli State website puts it this way:

Oral history has it that in their settlements at Ketu and Notse, the Ewes lived in walled cities called Agbome, literally meaning within the fence wall. At Notse, the Ewes were ruled by a tyrant, King Agorkorli whose sadistic rule is reported in the historical records of all Ewes. The Asoglis naturally detested the rule of King Agorkorli and, under the leadership of Togbe Kakla, they broke through a portion of the fortified wall for all Ewes to escape. Togbe Kakla and his people broke the wall after softening it through a planned and persistent splashing of water. The conspiracy included a deceptive plan under which the escaping subjects walked backwards out of the walled city. The objective was to create the impression that the footprints they left were those of people who had entered the city. This confused the King’s soldiers and by the time they realized what had happened, most of the subjects had escaped to freedom.

The permeable and creatively shifting planes of Anatsui’s wall may be paying tribute to this tale of escape and illusion.

In her thoughtful and detailed book, El Anatsui: Art and Life, Susan Mullin Vogel makes a point of the fact that Anatsui titles his works only after they are complete. Whether titles like Ozone Layer and Earth’s Skin are meant to reinforce the idea that his concerns are global — that he is a world artist, not “just” an African one — may be unanswerable. Certainly he is impatient with critics who too easily equate the red and gold bands of some of his works with the reds and golds of kente cloth.

El Anatsui. Gli (Wall). detail.

On the other hand, he is happy to claim the historical resonance behind the trade names you can see when you get close to the metal sheets: Black Gold Whisky, Castello, Romatex, Liquor Headmaster, Paragon Ponche, KD Beverages, Obisco United, 007 Dark Rum. His discovery in 1998 of a bag of discarded bottle tops has become a creation story that, as per Vogel, smoothly segues into world-historical themes.

Several things went through my mind when I found the bag of bottle tops in the bush. I thought of the objects as links between my continent, Africa, and the rest of Europe. Objects such as these were introduced to Africa by Europeans when they came as traders. Alcohol was one of the commodities brought with them in exchange for goods in Africa. Eventually alcohol became one of the items used in the transatlantic slave trade. They made rum in the West Indies, took it to Liverpool, and then it made its way back to Africa. I thought that the bottle caps had a strong reference to the history of Africa.

Did Anatsui really think all these things as he peered into the bag by the side of the road? For an artist who names his work — that is, assigns it a meaning — only at the end of the creative process, it seems unlikely. It might be more probable that he was intrigued by the colors and textures of the caps, and realized that this cheap and abundant material could make it possible to work on a scale he had never attempted before.

A work of art is not a lecture or a sermon. At the same time, it is not without meaning. Once we have said, “I love it,” or “I hate it,” or “It makes me feel dirty,” or “It seems to lift me up,” most of us aren’t satisfied content until we have explained why, at least to our own satisfaction.

Anatsui, it seems to me, has a hard-won understanding of the art world’s need to classify and pigeonhole. In regard to his own work, his aim seems to be to keep up from making the pigeonholes too small, to prevent us from stopping with the thought “it’s like a giant metal kente cloth” and encourage us to think bigger.

Anatsui’s development as an artist parallels the history of art in West Africa, or perhaps in any colonized country. In one of the Vogel documentaries screened at the Brooklyn Museum, you see the artist flipping through photos of his early work: sober, monumental figures done in plaster of paris. But just as colonized people rebel against the standards of the homeland, Anatsui began working with local materials and local themes. Alexi Worth, in the New York Times, observes:

After graduation [from art school in newly independent Ghana], Anatsui got a job teaching art and began studying African ideographs. In Ghana, the most common of these appear on cloths worn at funerals and are called adinkra. For this first mature body of work, Anatsui bought wooden food trays from local markets and burned or carved versions of adinkra symbols onto them...These symbols included the backward-glancing sankofa bird, which expresses the importance of retrieving from the past the things that will help you today. The meaning of these works was not assigned once they were done — they were stamped on the thing itself.

In 1975, when Anatsui was thirty-one years old, he moved to Nigeria and began teaching sculpture at the university in Nsukka. As Vogel notes, Nsukka had been part of the breakaway Igbo republic of Biafra, but was overrun by federal troops in the first year of the 1967-1970 war.

According to Ola Oloidi, a professor of art history, before the war Nsukka’s art curriculum represented European traditions of naturalism: “a nonradical, nonexperimental, nonendogamous, and creatively shackling art preoccupation.” After the war, the return of artistically and politically energizing Igbo artists and academics led to change.

The postwar curriculum was developed by a faculty led by [Uche] Okeke, who had trained in Germany for a year and had been recruited to rebuild the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts. Okeke had been a forceful supporter of a movement known as “Natural Synthesis,” which had been developed by a group of artists reacting against the heavily European orientation of the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology … where he had taught before the Biafran war. Natural Synthesis advocated combining the best of indigenous and foreign features in art. Like the contemporary Negritude school in Senegal, it often resulted in works executed in European media, mainly easel painting and graphics, but taking their content from African history and contemporary life.

After the Biafran war, Okeke turned toward a militant Igbo ethnicity and developed an art movement based specifically on Igbo graphic-art traditions. That movement has become known as “Ulism,” after a traditional style of abstract painting practiced by Igbo women and used for body decoration and embellishing exterior walls. A characteristic feature of traditional Uli painting is a row of tiny dots parallel to a long winding line.

Anatsui and Okeke became friends: “We would talk about art until two or three in the morning.” Anatsui was in harmony with the mission of Okeke and others to “indigenize” their art. As a non-Igbo it was natural that he would not become a full member of the Uli movement. He continued his work in wood, and his first solo show in 1976 featured wall-mounted wooden sculpture. That same year he turned to ceramics, another traditional medium, creating sculptures from broken clay pots as well as worn-out wooden pestles. Alexi Worth notes that one sculpture, “a reconstituted ceramic globe, took its title from a fatalist pidgin aphorism, ‘We dey patch am e dey leak,’ meaning ‘It leaks even as we struggle to mend it.’”

If these old pots and pestles were beyond repair and of no further use in everyday life, the years had given them character and uniqueness. In the African tradition of honoring age and experience, Anatsui sought to rescue them, if not for household use, then for art.

Anatsui’s Wooden Period lasted longer than any other in his career, and it may not be over yet. In 1980, while at the Cummington Community of Arts in Massachusetts, he used a chainsaw to cut firewood and realized its potential. “I discovered that the chainsaw was a very evocative sculpture tool, and I started using it.” Vogel further explains:

For Anatsui, the different colors of the carefully selected woods represented the peoples and cultures of Africa, and the power saw embodied a barely controllable violence, just as its slashing cuts expressed cruel rupture — two facets of African history that he wanted to address…. Repetitive lines were cut by assistants and the artist or his assistants would burn off the splintered edges of the saw cuts and blacken their lines with a blowtorch (later an acetylene torch). This was a process, he says, of “civilizing” the “savagery” of the saw, but has also likened the scorching of the torch to the injuries inflicted on the African peoples by colonial rule.

Anatsui’s two most impressive works in wood may be Erosion (1992) and Untitled (1997), each one a pillar of ravaged wood marked with numerous horizontal chainsaw grooves. The twisting length of Erosion, which stands almost ten feet high, is elaborately chased, stippled, and cross-hatched. Fragments of wood surround its base, like scree at the base of a mountain. Untitled was created in Namibia in 1998, from found pieces of camel thorn wood. As tall as a man, it resembles a set of long wooden jaws with peglike teeth, festooned with what Vogel calls “pathetic garlands of rusted iron.”

El Anatsui. Erosion, (1992). Piqua marfim and tempera, 296 cm. high.

Some of the smaller works in wood were on display at the Brooklyn Museum. To my mind they were the weakest pieces there, more artsy-craftsy than monumental. A few, with titles like “Motley Crowd” and “Seers,” showed a return to semi-figurative drawing: lines of humanoid shapes or simplified bug-eyed faces. Some were updated around 2010, apparently by incorporating bits of colorful metallic bottle tops of the sort that makes up his metal sheets.

This attempt didn’t help. These pieces struck me as the last gasp of the “message” art that surrounded the artist in his early years in Nsukka.

Anatsui’s Metal Period began in 1998 with the fateful discovery of the bag of bottle tops, but his famous bottle-top tapestries are only one way he has expressed himself in metal. As he said himself, “I think the metal phase actually started with — not the bottle tops but the metal cassava graters, followed by the milk tins, and now the bottle tops.”

Before he began stitching together rings and caps from bottles, he did the same with cassava graters, showing his first experimental work in 1999. One of his newest works, Broken Bridge II, contrasts the buckled, perforated, rust-red surface of stitched-together graters with shards of mirror-like metal. Though they come from a very different place, the distressed graters chime beautifully with the weathered metal and old brick of their New York surroundings.

Anatsui’s next experiments in recovered material left village life behind. Using the lids of Peak canned milk, Anatsui created a kind of “light” version of his famous metal tapestries. The size and uniformity of the milk lids led to a simpler and easier to make kind of metal sheet. The giant tubular Drainpipes have a snaky sort of organic interest, but the Peak sculptures, in which the lids are drawn up into pointed mountaintops, are not much more than a visual pun.

El Anatsui. Drainpipes.

El Anatsui. Wastepaper Bags.

In a style reminiscent of the African shopping bags woven together from empty grain sacks, Anatsui created giant bags and boxes — some of them displayed in Brooklyn — from the discarded metal sheets used by printers. If you look closely you can read the op-eds, obituaries, and news stories that occupied Nigeria a few years ago. The bags also speak to conflict within West Africa: in Nigeria this style of bag is called “Ghana must go,” recalling a time in the 1980s when an economic crisis led to the expulsion of thousands of people who, like the artist himself, were immigrants from Ghana.

To portray El Anatsui as the prototypical African artist is misleading. Though he has chosen to live and make his career in Africa, he has done so in Nigeria, a country not his own. One of thirty-two children, he is childless himself. Though Anatsui is his real surname, the name El — with its Spanish, North African, or even biblical associations — is his own invention.

The point, perhaps, is that Anatsui doesn’t have to be prototypical any more than an American artist has to grow up among wheat fields, Little League diamonds, or whatever American cliché you can think of. He is unquestionably a world-class artist and unquestionably an African artist. He has accomplished this not by hewing to any ideological platform, but by growing, evolving, and taking his own path. Perhaps due to this, El Anatsui has become not only a favorite of critics and museum-goers, but perhaps the best-known visual artist the African continent has produced.

Geoff Wisner is the editor of African Lives: An Anthology of Memoirs and Autobiographies and author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa. He writes for the Christian Science Monitor, The Quarterly Conversation, and Words Without Borders and blogs at