Unless there’s terrible news Africa doesn’t get much notice in this part of the world. But at the Venice Biennale six years ago, it was the object of thousands of beauty-bedazzled eyes, even if some of those eyes didn’t know at first what they were looking at.
One of that show’s most popular sights was an immense sheet of undulant light floating, floor to ceiling, at the very end of the Biennale’s main, long, cavernous exhibition hall, the Arsenale.
In a city of mosaics, it could have been a super-mosaic, inlaid in silver and gold, or a fabulous gold-threaded tapestry, its surface broken by shimmering swags and folds. Distance made a difference in understanding. When you moved closer you saw that the whole glinting thing was pieced together from countless tiny parts: pieces of colored metal pinched and twisted into strips, squares, circles and rosettes, linked together, like chain mail, with bits of copper wire.
Closer still, very close, you could make out words printed on some of the metal scraps: Bakassi, Chelsea, Dark Sailor, Ebeano, King Solomon, Makossa, Top Squad.
Some of them sounded foreign, nonEuropean. So, when you learned it, did the artist’s name: El Anatsui. Hard to place geographically, it was just beginning to ring international art-world bells. He’s from Ghana, you heard, or Nigeria.
This was perception-altering information. Suddenly, in that great sheet of light, you saw Africa, not Europe; kente cloth, not Baroque tapestry. That the metal pieces looked like scrap material became significant. Clichés clicked into place: Africa = recycling. And art that, a moment before, was simply blow-away gorgeous was now exotically mysterious.
The mystery wasn’t so much in the art itself as in the Western cultural politics surrounding it. How, against stacked odds, did art by an African artist become the centerpiece of the world’s most prestigious contemporary showcase? Historically black artists from Africa had achieved international attention only when they lived and worked outside the continent. And then, paradoxically, their art was embraced to the extent that it advertised African-ness. Anatsui’s Venetian tour de force fit neither criterion.
Now, six years later, those “how did this happen?” questions may again arise for a new audience around the sparkling retrospective exhibition Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, which just opened at the Brooklyn Museum. But time has made a difference. Anatsui’s art has been visible in major public collections. Books have been written. (The best of them is “El Anatsui: Art and Life by Susan Mullin Vogel.) Films have been made. We know more about him than we once did.
He was born in 1944 in Ghana, which was then the British colony of Gold Coast. His father was a fisherman and master weaver of kente cloth, a skill that Anatsui himself never learned.
Instead he studied art in high school and university programs conceived on British models and staffed with European teachers. At the same time, he made an effort to immerse himself in local Ghanaian traditions. “When I left art school, my idea was to try to indigenize — to get a bit of indigenous material into my psyche,” he once told an interviewer. And his first work as a professional artist, in the early 1970s, was local in a literal way.
It was a series of wall pieces made from wooden display trays collected in town markets. On the surface of each tray, using hot iron bars, he scorched graphic symbols from Ghanaian textiles, symbols of myth and memory. Seen in a Western context the results looked abstract; in Africa they had specific meaning. The combination of apparent ornamentalism and usefulness answered to the aesthetic values of two very different cultures.
Read more: NYTimes