Episode 15: El Anatsui, “Black River” (2009)
When you decide to go off and study art history, the question you find yourself getting asked, first from your pre-med friends and then eventually, in a fit of all-nighter finals panic, you, is well, what is the point of all this? And you’re not even being asked that existentially, but with genuine curiosity. We live in a pretty practical world with a lot of practical challenges, a world that exists and churns and has a hard enough time just going about its business. Art making, and art appreciating, by and large, is not a necessary part of life, at least compared to the struggles of every day existence. So really, what’s the point? You’ll have a perfectly functional day without stopping in at an art museum to look at goopy pigment in frames on walls.
Art accepts that challenge. It knows it needs to do something dramatic to get your attention, to make your recognize its value. So it interrupts. It draws your attention to something that you’d otherwise walk right by, jumping from the bushes and chomping at your ankle. It’s Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, teetering over you in an otherwise unremarkable plaza, suddenly making you aware of how inconspicuously secure your space ordinarily is. It’s Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, challenging your assumptions of the pop culture fishbowl you’re so immersed in that you can’t even feel the water. And though all artists work in a larger art historical tradition – there’s really no getting away from it –some are particularly invested in responding to the world around them, that practical, churning world, with the tools that world provides for them. Sometimes even those tools are in the bushes, waiting for those artists who are particularly attuned to their potential, who can best make use of them to interrupt us all. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
It’s a particular pleasure to talk about El Anatsui in the context of all of this active interruption, because he’s still alive, and still active. He was born in Ghana in 1944, spent most of his career in Nigeria, and is currently a professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria. He is also still running the studios that produce these magnificent, sweeping large-scale cascading assemblages of, go closer, bits of trash. Anatsui and his assistants go to alcohol recycling stations and collect thousands of discarded bottle caps and pieces of the aluminum peeled and stripped from beer bottles, and sew them together with copper wire, practicing literal alchemy as they transform this litter into these brilliant metallic cloth-like wall hangings. You’d never know what the materials were if you didn’t walk up close to them. And even when you do, the physical experience of standing in the presence of this installation is astoundingly luxurious, like being encased by a three-dimensional golden Gustav Klimt painting. You feel like you’re sinking into the bulky, material richness of these cascades. And when you pull yourself back from the beauty of it, and from your amazement of the time and creativity that went into turning something that is so one thing into something so entirely different, you start thinking about the social and economic implications—the many hands that touch the same beer bottles from production to consumption to recycling, the many hands that brought beer to Africa in exchange for human lives, the many countries implicated in this exchange, the many thriving aesthetic traditions represented just in the tapestry itself, and you realize that you’re being enveloped by something much larger than a tremendous shimmering blanket of woven garbage. “The amazing thing about working with these metallic ‘fabrics’,” Anatsui said in an interview, “is that the poverty of the materials used in no way precludes the telling of rich and wonderful stories.”
So let’s start with the origin story, because it’s a good one. In his telling of it, Anatsui literally stumbled upon this technique by discovering, you guessed it, a plastic bag of these bottle tops in the bushes, a worthless bag of trash, tossed aside. It began as a purely aesthetic experiment: he noticed that they came in these interesting colors, which, taken together, form a dense, mass-produced and pre-fabricated palette, and if he used copper wire to link them and hang them on the wall, he could also change their entire composition, and then give them rhythm and texture, creasing them in various ways and giving them a distinctly fabric-like feel. One man’s trash literally became his treasure. This complete physical transformation, he said, was “worthy of exploration.”
As the daughter of a fiber artist, I can say with some authority that there is a common thread, no pun intended, that runs through the creators of fiber art, or this genre of fine art that consists entirely of natural or synthetic, dimensional materials that have been woven or sewed or some other neat subversion of the textile process. It’s almost entirely constructed – no paintbrush or canvas in sight. These artist share a sense of interruption, and of mindfulness. They see the mutability of materials, and endless opportunities to creatively repurpose them – whether it’s old, discarded button down shirts in the case of my mom, or, if you’re El Anatsui, taking a plastic bag of trash back to your studio and weaving a tapestry. And to be clear, when I say interruption, here I’m talking about an artist being interrupted, being actively hoisted out of the everyday, disrupting his or her own associations of a commonplace object to see its ability to be part of something extraordinary. When you possess this kind of creativity, I’ve been told, these kinds of things literally grab you. And mindfulness is a part of this. You need to keep your awareness up, your antenna attuned.
Just keeping an eye out for the bottle tops and wrappers, which, as you can imagine, are suddenly everywhere the minute you start paying attention, turns an otherwise passive walk into an active search. And then there’s a further meditative aspect of sorting them by color, sewing them together into what Anatsui called building blocks, composing the larger design, and then determining the volume and cadence of the tapestry on the wall.
It might seem like I’m spending a disproportionate time talking about the artists, rather than the art. The thing is, it’s hard to separate fiber art from the artists themselves, because the results of their labor are right in front of you. Of course, you could say the same thing about a painting, especially a modernist painting with highly visible brushstrokes. But there’s something about the three-dimensions of fiber art that make the palpable effort of the process a tangible part of the viewing experience. You get way more people standing in front of a piece of fiber art and remarking on how long it must have taken the artist to do it than, say, standing in front of a 10x13 foot history painting at the Louvre. And so much of that reaction is due to the unexpected use of materials, these utilitarian materials – yarn, clothing, bottle tops, plastic –often found objects that are being reused and recycled, showcased for their purely aesthetic virtues. Viewers walk up to this tapestry and do a double-take when they realize what it’s made out of, and this transformation of the materials, and this subversion of the viewer’s expectations, becomes an added layer of appreciation for and exploration of the object itself. Now it interrupts you.
But for what purpose? Surely, these artists are doing more than chomping at your ankle from the bushes because it’s really neat to make garbage look like a Klimt. Yes, there’s a sort of “made you look” at play, but now that they have, they can capitalize on your attention. And that’s not a gift they’re going to take lightly. Because while fiber art takes materials and deemphasizes the functional in favor of the aesthetic, it simultaneously emphasizes a larger political value. So many fiber artworks are deeply political—even the genre itself is political. Fiber and textile art for most of its history wasn’t considered an art at all, but rather a domestic craft, like sewing. In other words, women’s work– labor-intensive, unproductive, invisible, and devalued as an art form, until it was gloriously reclaimed in the post-modern feminist art movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Artists like Eva Hesse, Sheila Hicks, Judy Chicago, and many others reclaimed the needle and thread in order to make large-scale and powerful statements on feminism, on forgotten non-western textile traditions, even to simply return a sense of organic pliancy to the rigidity of 1960s Minimalism. And as we can see, each artwork then became its own statement, depending on the materials used. So here, when Anatsui weaves his bottle tops together, we’re struck by how gorgeous these bits of gold aluminum detritus can be, and then struck again that that something so beautiful is representative of a powerful and multilayered history of alcoholism in Africa.
This is where we dive back into the rich and wonderful stories Anatsui has promised us. And of course, some are more wonderful than others. Anatsui describes the woven bottle tops as a means of iconizing of the alcoholic drinks that were brought to Africa by Europeans as part of the slave trade, an early and tragic point of contact between the two continents. Here, in “Black River” in particular, Anatsui uses labels from local Nigerian brands, with names like Chairman, Dark Sailor, Black Gold, and Ecomog, which references the West African, though largely Nigerian, armed force established on 1990 to intervene in the Liberian civil war. It’s impossible to see Black Gold and not think of the current conflicts over natural resources in Africa, especially oil, and not see the rigid black strips dripping down the tapestry, presumably giving the piece its title. But there are also pre-Colonial references too: a sense of topography from the way the tapestry is hung, the gold caps crinkled into monochromatic rolling hills and peaks and valleys, like a three-dimensional map. And in the lower right-hand corner, there’s a reference to Ghanaian kente cloth, a traditional strip-woven cloth made by the Asante people of Ghana, often seen in festive dress for special occasions. Anatsui personalizes and reimagines kente cloth and its patterning for his installations, incorporating what he calls “adinsubli”: both Uli and nsibidi designs by different Nigerian tribes, and adinkra, a Ghanaian design. Traditionally, these designs and patterns are used to communicate very specific cultural meaning, social codes of conduct, religious belief, political philosophies. For Anatsui, it’s a bringing together of his own personal experiences between Ghana and Nigeria. Yet still, at a global level, he argues, despite the specificity of its uses within its tradition, Kente cloth is seen simply an overriding signifier for African-ness.
Yet despite how politically charged these installations can be, Anatsui himself is remarkably unsanctimonious in his approach. He creates these tapestries with the help of 20-30 assistants, marveling all the while at the sheer number of people who will touch, and then subsequently experience, these modest little bottle tops. These are objects, he says, that link people together: the people who drank the liquor, the assistants to helped arrange them, the viewers like us who stand in their striking, sumptuous magnificence. There’s a kind of open-endedness and flexibility to his approach, to his acceptance and wonder at objects passing through hands, all of which is mirrored in the freedom he gives curators when his tapestries arrive at their exhibition spaces. “Art,” he says, “is a replica of life. And life is not a fixed thing.” Since they were conceived to be free and mutable, Anatsui leaves it in curatorial hands as to how they want to hang it, shaped any way they want, without Anatsui’s interference. In his words, this freedom allows him to then learn from the curators, to see how they see the work, the many different ways people choose to interact with these transformed materials. Far be it from him to interrupt.