When El Anatsui’s large textile pieces, which he refers to as sheets, travel around the world –from Nigerian museums to New York galleries to the famed Venice Biennial and so on— they arrive at their destination in small, even diminutive, crates. Inside, each is delicately folded as if it were a piece of cloth. For those who are familiar with Anatsui’s work, this method of transportation may come as a shock: the artist’s sheets are immensely expansive accumulations of discarded liquor bottle tops sewn together, forming intricate patterns, spanning entire museum and gallery walls.
The fact that his large-scale works are easily folded to a fraction of their size and shipped off, traveling around the globe—an unusual characteristic for monumental-size art—reflects the migratory nature of both internationally successful artists and corporate globalism. The portable, or nomadic, aspect of Anatsui’s sheets has become central to their meaning (and, perhaps, to their international appeal). He engineers them to be uniquely flexible, creating artworks that are dependent upon curators to hang and drape according to their will. In this sense, he involves the institution and exhibition structure in the artistic process, in what Anatsui describes as the ‘nomadic aesthetic’ of his works. In a 2006 interview, he said, “The idea is not only about being able to move them, but also that each time they are moved, they have to be configured afresh, most of the time by other parties apart from the artist.
Upon entering “Pot of Wisdom,” El Anatsui’s third solo exhibition at Jack Shaiman Gallery, one is immediately confronted with a strong, cohesive body of the Ghanarian artist’s recent work, presented in his signature cloth-like style, composed of a vast array of bottle caps. All the pieces hang against the gallery walls with the exception of Uwa (2012), which is twisted and rolled into a spherical configuration that is either caught in the process of unraveling or in the midst of developing into a singular, globular whole. His work mirrors the postmodern processes of globalization with its fugitive, in-between, and mutable qualities.
In the back room of the gallery hangs Untitled (2012), a large sheet that resembles a satellite view of a large metropolis, like an image on GoogleMaps. In certain parts of the composition bottle caps are sewn together in abundant heaps, but these heavy accumulations seem to slowly disperse as one examines the bottle-top patterns on the collected pile. These areas, which contribute to the work’s compositional balance, resemble a bird’s eye view of sprawling suburban streets and rural roads. Images of vast lands punctuated by cities and towns, as well as the roads that connect them, come to mind in Anatsui’s works, suggesting points of contact in the journeys of the nomad. For instance, his bottle-caps take on a deeper resonance with histories of colonial contact when one considers that liquor was a major commodity traded by Europeans for West African slaves.
Anatsui’s hangings gently alert viewers to the human histories and relationships behind the materials that surround us, interlacing object and metaphor like elements within a cloth. The “nomadic aesthetic” supports a fluidity of ideas and the transient, impermanent nature of form. Despite the permanence of metal, El Anatsui’s primary medium, his works are temporally and spatially ephemeral, developing a new life with each space they occupy.