Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, Brooklyn Museum, New York

People sometimes ask El Anatsui about his beauty problem. What they mean is that his sculptures, his great symphonies of bottle caps and tin cans, are so achingly lovely that they make some critics squirm. In certain sophisticated circles, art earns respect by being difficult, opaque or aggressive. Beauty’s just another word for nothing left to say. But there is plenty of prestigious darkness in Anatsui’s gorgeous, shimmering surfaces. Viewers can choose to enjoy only the luxuriant glimmer – but for the more demandingly depressive crowd, there are shadows of loss, dislocation, and environmental decay that wind through the weft of his huge metallic draperies.

Born in Ghana and now living in Nigeria, Anatsui is the best-known African artist alive, but he hasn’t been famous for long. At 68, he is the rare major figure to have found the limelight so late. The Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective, Gravity and Grace: Monumental Work by El Anatsui, marks his first appearance in a New York institution, and it’s a sublime debut. Together with an excellent catalogue by Susan Vogel, it illuminates myriad facets of his mosaic-like work.

The opening gallery looks like a chainmail workshop for a tribe of giants. This is “Gli (Wall)”, a suite of five semi-transparent veils made from aluminium bottle caps sewn together with copper wire. The hangings gleam and shiver, dissolving edges and burning away detail so we sense only blurred movement on the other side. We can let these curtains envelop us, or stand back and let them coat the world with a forgiving haze.

Barriers exist to divide. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote the American poet Robert Frost. But Anatsui sees walls differently, as obstacles that stimulate the mind. “I think when the view is blocked, the tendency is for the human imagination to take over and leap over that thing, and start imagining things on the other side of it,” he says in the catalogue. “I felt that walls, rather than conceal things, were constructs which help reveal things.”

Just as Anatsui uses screens as revelation, he remakes junk as exaltation. He harvests industrial detritus and weaves it into hand-wrought treasure. His metallic coats-of-many-colours are like the best sort of magic trick: they lose none of their enchantment by showing how it’s done. From a distance they look like illuminated manuscripts writ large or gold-toned paintings by Gustav Klimt blown up to architectural proportions. But come a little closer and the illusion of opulence dissolves. Doubloons divulge their gritty past as tin can lids. Spun-gold webs bare their origins as the caps of liquor bottles. Yet it’s precisely when these ingredients reveal their true nature as hand-rolled, -ripped, -crumpled, -twisted, -folded -bent and -pierced scraps of metal that they release an even deeper beauty. Frost also wrote: “I crave the flaws of human handiwork. I gloat over imperfection.” So does El Anatsui.

Has anyone ever made the ravages of mass consumption look more appealing? The works in his “Peak” series, made from milk cans, wind into higher and higher pyramids, subtly and without rancour totting up the wages of our accumulated trash. We can’t help but admire the finesse of these monuments to rubbish, but the seduction comes with a twinge. Most garbage doesn’t enjoy such an exalted afterlife.

The advantage of repurposing refuse is that supplies never run short, and Anatsui exhorts students to work with materials that are inexpensive or even free. He seems much more ambivalent, though, about cheap labour. You can’t look at these great, glittering curtains without thinking about the gallons of sweat each one absorbed or about the poverty that drove its makers to days of brutally boring labour. Anatsui couldn’t make such gigantic and intricate objects without dozens of nameless assistants doing piecework in a place with few economic opportunities. Knowing this blemishes the pleasure of seeing the final product and raises a series of discomfiting questions. Is Anatsui crafting a monument to suffering, hoping to spur compassion, or merely reaching for celebrity by standing on the backs of poorly paid workers? He doesn’t seem sure. The process, he has said, “attempts to valorise an evolutionary pace of doing things, but also references the commonalisation and cheap rating of labour – human labour, over the greater part of the planet.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but there’s something disingenuous about “referencing” cheap labour by employing it.

A more explicit message is built into the works’ structure, or near-lack of structure – what the artist calls “the nonfixed form”. Foldable, crushable, and eminently portable like the tents of nomadic tribes, Anatsui’s pieces acquire independent lives after they leave his studio. Curators and buyers are free to hang them any way they wish: hugging a wall or spilling on to the floor, free-flowing or artfully creased. “I don’t want to be a dictator,” he says. “I want to be somebody who suggests things.” Those are trenchant words in a region teeming with actual and aspiring dictators. It takes wisdom to see that relinquishing control can be a form of freedom.

Divisiveness, consumerism, recycling, exploitation, nomadism, dictatorship – such heavy topics for this spangled work! Anatusui’s pretty tapestries carry a lot of baggage on their ever-wider wanderings. As the show’s title suggests, his eye is grave, and his view of the world is a troubled one, but he unfailingly finds the sparkle in its gloom. Beauty is one problem he doesn’t have.

To August 4,

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