“If you leave your country, you develop a kind of nomadic mentality. If I had lived in Ghana, my mind wouldn’t have roamed. I wouldn’t have expanded my experiences, or I would have been too comfortable.”

A provocative statement by El Anatsui, a Ghanaian artist, who’s first solo show in New York, Gravity & Grace, is being exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum. El has the distinction of being an artist who’s recognized as globally prominent despite living for the past 35+ years (since 1975) in the university town of Nsukka in eastern Nigeria. A frequent walker in and around Nsukka, we are the beneficiaries of this extraordinary talent with a roaming mind.

El works in a variety of media including wood, metal, and wire, but what’s even more striking is that he’s actively engaged in the process of cultural renewal. After he found a bag of bottle caps from liquor bottles that someone was throwing away – the bottles are re-cycled and re-used – he began to re-purpose these caps into magnificent urban sculptures. By flattening them, making various shapes with them, and attaching them with bits of wire, he transforms these discarded pieces of metal into stunning works of art. Some look like colorful garments; others are intended to be a type of wall. El’s walls are unlike traditional walls which are “meant to block views, but they block only the view of the eye … -not the imaginative view. When the eye scans a certain barrier, the imagination tends to go beyond that barrier. Walls reveal more than they hide.”

In creating these art pieces from the yellows, reds, and greens of various caps from bottles that hold liquor, he’s also reminding us of the historical connection between the slave trade and the sale of liquor.  Africans were sold as slaves to work sugar plantations in the West. The sugar was later distilled and sold back to Africans in the form of hard liquor. All of El’s work is layered in this way: there’s more to it than what one first sees, and invariably the viewer is drawn in closer, to try to make sense of the words on the caps. El treats his work with such freedom too that each time a piece is hung, it’s hung differently. The shape and therefore the interpretation of the piece remain fluid.

Photos don’t do justice to his magnificent creations but to get at least a small sense of  El’s 30 pieces (besides the ones below), check out this link:  http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/el_anatsui/#  . Better yet, if you live in New York, or will be visiting here this summer, make a point of viewing the show at the Brooklyn Museum, before August 4. You won’t be disappointed by the genius of this humble nomad.

el anatsui silver pieceel anatsui red piece

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