The Art of El Anatsui and the Critic's Comeuppance

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Intrigued by an artwork that is new to me, I like to get very close and examine its texture. It's not unlike having a handshake with a new acquaintance that hopefully confirms a first, favorable impression. A couple of months ago, at the Seattle Art Museum, when I saw for the first time a large, colorful wall hanging by Nigerian artist El Anatsui, I mistook it for a traditional African textile. Then, seeing it up close, I realized that it was assembled from thousands of small, shiny, metal pieces pierced and stitched together with copper wire. The endearing part of the artwork was the very humble nature of the materials the artist used: throwaway metal screw tops from various brands of liquor bottles. He flattens them, cuts them into pieces, and then uses them the way a painter uses brushstrokes. Some of the metal bits had plain silvery or muted gold surfaces, while others had deep colors and even fragments of text.

Though impressed by the work, I didn't attempt to learn more about the artist and forgot about it – until a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself at the Venice Biennale standing in front of two gigantic wall pieces by El Anatsui. This time, instead of hanging flat on the wall, they were rather flamboyantly draped to a most theatrical effect. Shimmering waves of gold, punctuated by a staccato of bright color, made me think about the gold mosaic background in portraits by Gustav Klimt or the sumptuous operatic set designs for Verdi's Aida. In spite of strong competition from the works of other artists at the international exhibition organized by Biennale curator Robert Storr, these two wall hangings clearly stood apart and caused quite a stir.

At this point, I learned that El Anatsui, who was born in Ghana, lives now in Nigeria and is considered to be one of the most influential artists from Africa. His art has been shown in numerous exhibitions worldwide and has been acquired by various museums. So obviously I was not the first who discovered him. Others were smitten by the magic of his art as well; the façade of the famous Palazzo Fortuny was decorated with one of El Anatsui's tapestry-like hangings, greeting visitors flocking to Artempo, one of the most provocative exhibitions currently on display in Venice.

Among the thousands of people who descended upon Venice for the Biennale was a sizeable contingent of Angelinos. The inevitable question, after the greeting was "What is your favorite pavilion? Who is your favorite artist?" Running into a good acquaintance, Marla Berns, director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, I raved to her about El Anatsui. And here comes the most embarrassing part: "Mr. Goldman," she said, "Do you realize that there is an exhibition of his works right now in my museum, back in LA, under your very nose, and you obviously haven't seen it yet?" So, it was a moment for yours truly to eat his humble pie.

Returning home I rushed to the Fowler Museum and am happy to report -– and not out of a sense of guilt, but out of a sense of discovery and the desire to share a treasure trove -– that the exhibition is a total delight and not to be missed. Along with the already familiar shimmering tapestries, one can see freestanding sculptures commanding equal attention. Some are made from the round tops of food tins, while others are made from rusty metal sheets punctured with nail holes, turning these sheets into primitive vegetable graters. And that, in a nutshell, is the essence of the magic of the art of El Anatsui, weaving the proverbial silk purse out of a sow's ear.

El Anatsui: Gawu
On view at the Fowler Museum at UCLA through August 26

Artempo, Where Time Becomes Art
On view through October 7 at the Palazzo Fortuny, Venice

Banner image: El Anatsui, Peak Project, 1999; Tin, copper wire, Maximum of 105 parts, installed dimensions variable as space is available; 106.68 to 137.16 cm; Collection of the artist; Image courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA; Photograph by Reed Hutchinson