Sunday, October 17, 2010

Anatsui at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Earlier this month the much-anticipated El Anatsui retrospective organized by the Museum for African Art, New York opened at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. For years, I was anxious to see what Anatsui's retrospective might look like; what a museological space would make sense of his very diverse body of work, from the round wood panels of the 1970s to the ceramic sculptures of the early 1980s, from the acrylic paintings of the early 80s to the wall plaques and three dimensional wood sculptures of the 80s and 90s, and finally to the metal sculptures of the last ten years. I wondered what the works would look like in the discursive space of the retrospective exhibition, after several years of seeing them up close as Anatsui's sculpture student, and later as his studio assistant, long before I started writing about these works or presenting some of them in exhibitions.

The show organized by Lisa Binder, assistant curator at the Museum for African Art, is quite an effort and must be, for people who know Anatsui only through his stupendous metal sculptures, a revelatory experience. Here for the first time are gathered some of the artist's key early works, with many of the round wood panels, several of the ceramic sculptures, and the paintings only visitors to Anatsui's home at Nsukka knew existed. There is of course the graceful free-standing wood sculpture, Wonder Masquerade, owned by Wole Soyinka, and a few other key wood sculptures, such as When Last I Wrote to You...(which gave the exhibition its title). Surprisingly though, the Crumbling Wall, or the Wast Paper Baskets --works that show a bit more of the range of the artists metal sculptural language, beyond the bottle and milk can top sculptures--are not part of the show, nor are any of the marquee wall-bound metal sculptures of the last decade. Might this be due to loan problems?

Ok. What I have said above is the good thing about the show. I don't even want to rant about the really terrible design of the exhibition. I could, but I wont. But let me just say that whoever came up with the idea of painting the walls, platforms and pedestals with that terrible blue paint, and reddish wood highlights did a great disservice the artist's work. Not only did the color add to the already noisy space (I just can't help wondering what Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the building, thought he was doing with the harsh, messy diagonal walls that compromised the usable space of the galleries, apart from giving me momentary, unappreciated vertigo), it invaded the composition of several of the wood panels. I don't even want to think that the designers of the show wanted to really impress visitors to the work of this "African" artist--after all, are Africans not a people of color!?

So, please, please. Let this craziness just end in Toronto, and could designers of the spaces where this retrospective will travel save these works from the color abuse? Thank you.


Anonymous said...

It's not just the color. Unfortunately, as every curator has found, NOTHING shows very well in Libeskind's badly designed spaces. The overwhelmingly busy and disorienting galleries do a great disservice to ALL art, not just this show, I hope it is not traveling to Denver where another of Libeskind's monumental screw ups is lurking and waiting to compromise more exhibitions.

Nancy Natale said...

Hello Professor Okeke-Agulu, I just stumbled across your blog while looking up info about El Anatsui to post on my own blog. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you so much for providing context and explication for El Anatsui's responses to questions posed by Lisa Binder at Wellesley College. Your commentary made everything so much more understandable for me and gave me a deeper background to the work.

I saw Anatsui's work at Jack Shainman Gallery last February and think that it was so much better installed there. Although I did not see the installation in Toronto that you refer to, from your images I agree that the harsh blue color does nothing for the work and makes the exhibition more about the walls than anything else. Last February, on the same day that I visited the Jack Shainman Gallery, I also saw the installation of "Beyond Heaven and Earth" at the Met. I was horrified by the gold wall that was used for the installation there as it competed with the beauty and reflectivity of the materials used in the piece and seemed to suck the life out of it. I just hope that when the show finally reaches the Museum of African Art, the walls will not be painted some other horrible color so that the work may have a chance to breathe.

Speaking of breath, the problem with the Wellesley installation for me was that I was unable to get close enough to the work to view the text on the bottle caps. The guards were ferocious in their minding as if by my breathing on or near the work, it would somehow dissolve.

It was wonderful hearing El Anatsui speak about his work since I have been a fan of his for some time. You made the experience even more valuable, and I thank you very much for that.