Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Anatsui's Zebra Crossing at Jack Shainman
El Anatsui, Bleeding Takari Shirt II, 2007
(Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)
Last Thursday, I visited El Anatsui's exhibition, Zebra Crossing at Jack Shainman in Chelsea, NY, and it became very clear to me that the journey he began several years ago in Nsukka, working in the margins of contemporary art, can no more be ignored by the so-called mainstream (his appearance in the 52nd Venice Biennale and the epochal acquisition of his 2006 work Between Earth and Heavan by the Metropolitan Museum, NY further attest to this). Which is why I completely agree with Ken Johnson's characterization of Anatsui, in the NY Times review of Zebra Crossing, as "an international art star." The significance of Anatsui's work lies in its multivalence, its simultaneous evocation of traditions of African visual cultures--Bleeding Batakari Shirt II, for instance references the ritually potent, protective shirts worn by hunters and warriors, but which now bleeds on account of fatal breach of its security--and its announcement of his invention of particularly new, visually compelling and conceptually polysemous sculptural idiom. He brings to full circle Uche Okeke's proclamation in 1959 of the idea of Natural Synthesis as a critical strategy for contemporary African art. The recent metal sculptures developed from his earlier wood panels in which painterly concerns--whether from the colored tropical woods he worked with, or from the acrylics and tempera he applied to the panels--and interest in texture, mass and volume (from the violent rips of the powersaw, or determined marking of the bandsaw, router or carver's gouge) are seamlessly fused. While in the wood sculptures he breaks with the tradition of African sculpture confined to the vertical orientation of the tree trunk, in the metal pieces he freezes, through a different kind of stitching and weaving, the fluid form of the cloth fabric, thus conflating the rigidity of metal with the dynamic formlessness of cloth. The NY Times reviewer rightly wonders what happens when the novelty of Anatsui's medium and technique wears off, but I think that this question is not Anatsui's alone, but instead is the same problem that has confronted artists since the beginning of the 20th century, from Braque to Pollock, from Judd to Keifer, from Sherman to Shonibare. One thing is sure though; anyone who has followed Anatsui's work, from the carved circular wood panels of the 1970s, to the mysterious pottery of the late 70s and early 80s, from the 3-D wood sculptures and relief wood panels worked with powertools, to the more recent work in various kinds of metals (printer's plates, milkcans, and the better-known bottletops), the question of post-novelty anxiety seems quite irrelevant. For those who know the artist only from his recent metal sculpture, this might be an issue, but that is the critic's problem! Between 1988 and 1991 when I worked with Anatsui as a studio assistant (and yes he was my esteemed teacher in art school and later my colleague at my alma mater, Nsukka), I bore witness to his incredible, restless, imagination; as a critic and enduring student of his work I always wondered when the artworld outside Nigeria would pay serious attention to his work. Finally, the world is listening.