27 November 2007

Biennale: El Anatsui

Here is the work of the only artist who truly dazzled me – El Anatsui of Ghana, currently working in Nigeria.

What you are looking at is a pair of enormous “quilts” painstakingly constructed from bits of trash metal – bent bottle caps, sealing lead, tin can scraps, aluminum and copper tubing slices, smashed film canisters, all stitched together with tiny circles of wire. (A third and even larger quilt is currently draped over the façade of the Museo Fortuny where it rustles gently if there is a good breeze.)

I admit I’m a pushover for the artist who has no money for nor access to supplies and tools. How completely driven must such an individual be to get the work done in spite of such difficult circumstances? Artists of Latin and African cultures in particular make extensive use of cast-off materials with very satisfying results. But this achievement surpassed anything I had ever witnessed. (Of course, El Anatsui is neither untrained nor an "outsider" artist in any sense. Google him to learn more about his remarkable career and see his broad range of works, almost all of which are based on cast-off materials.)

My photos don’t begin to capture the lush, tactile quality these sophisticated pieces possess, nor the stunning effect they have on the viewer. They drape deeply and, from a distance, they have a rich, low shimmer like Fortuny’s heavy, gold-stenciled velvets. They bring to mind a Klimt painting or one of the complex gilt mosaics of Basilica San Marco.

Up close the colors, images, and letters on the metal scraps come into focus. The effect is one of naïve playfulness, of the sheer pleasure of mingling and marrying hues and patterns and textures. Then, as you examine the intricacies of the construction, it comes to you just how many hundreds of hours went into producing these beautiful things.

In short, they were most inviting artworks I’ve experienced in ages. Utterly irresistible! We awestruck Biennale visitors were constantly being admonished not to touch the gorgeous quilts; many simply could not stop themselves.