The nomad’s dazzling mysticism11/20/2013
El Anatsui, a Ghanaian born, Ewe-speaking man of the world, showed up for his media interview in Des Moines wearing a black suit, white shirt and athletic shoes as green as a Nigerian soccer jersey with bright red trim and large treads. “So now I won’t fall down,” he explained.
As with his attire, there is considerably more than what first meets the eye in this artist’s work. On its most obvious level, the Des Moines Art Center’s new exhibition “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” presents the most dazzling eye candy perhaps ever displayed in that museum. Though such an assessment piques the artist’s agents and representatives, it’s a fair first reaction from even the deepest-thinking cultural interpreter. After all, this massive show mostly consists of huge, colorful “walls and cloths” woven with metal twist-off bottle caps. Some high-school art students recently termed this exhibition “the first Christmas decorations of the year.” They said so with reverence, not dismissal.
Most of us who do not have PhDs in art history usually become more interested in what dazzles us than what repels us. El (a name that has no meaning which the artist gave himself) says he hopes that remains true with his exhibition. “To just call it eye candy misses the point. I want people to get up close and investigate the bottle caps. They are art themselves of an indigenous kind. I want people to touch them,” he said. (Touching is sadly forbidden in Des Moines, for insurance purposes.)
Walls began fascinating the artist after visiting Jerusalem, Berlin and Notsi, three cities with histories dominated by walls. “A wall reveals more than it hides,“ he reminds.
Indeed, the bottle caps, in excess of 300,000 in some pieces, come from milk can tops and liquor bottles. In Nigeria, where the artist keeps his studio, the liquor industry attracts customers with more provocative logos than western advertisers use. Liquor bottle caps attract El for several reasons:
1.) He likes to “use materials that have been previously handled by humans.” In fact, he even encourages studio assistants and gallery installation technicians to freely express themselves with his works; 2.) They are “sadly abundant in Nigeria”; 3.) Many of them ironically evoke colonial and social history — headmasters, corrupt presidents and, particularly, their first ladies, etc.; and 4.) They represent the English contribution to the slave trade routes of the 16th to 19th centuries. (Slaves went from Africa to the West Indies where they labored to produce sugar and molasses that were sent to England to be made into rum that was sent to Africa).
That final point reveals two important things about El. First, he is a nomad, having lived only a few months of his life in the place he was born. Many of his travels, like his recent visit to Des Moines, circumambulate the globe. There is little provincial about his worldview.
Secondly, he identifies with oppressed people. The title of this exhibition was first that of a book that deeply influenced him, written by Simone Weil. She was a mystic, philosopher and activist who identified with St. Francis of Assisi, fought in the Spanish Civil War and died during WWII of malnutrition (because she would not eat anything that soldiers could not find in their battlefield rations).
El is raw vegan who employs children in his studio. According to the Gates Foundation, they pound his bottle caps flat and he compensates them by sending them through school. In Des Moines, he said that the Gates Foundation didn’t get that exactly right but admitted that he has helped many of his studio workers get an education. “My first child assistant is now an engineer. I have several engineers and two in medicine. I just want to help them move on.”
Fortunately for Des Moines, “Gravity and Grace” does not move on until Feb. 9. CV