Walking through the El Anatsui exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art the first thing one encounters are massive veil-like curtains. Made of the bits and pieces of modern refuse, carefully folded into a loose color rich chain-mail, its delicate beauty and fragility envelopes. Close up the dazzling perfection of the crafted tapestries and sculptures imbue the viewer with a feeling that is all at once strength and grace. El Anatsui is an Ghanaian artist that creates works of art with what is unthinkingly thrown away. He works with collected bottle caps and metal wrappers, the tin tops and bits of wood that litter our every step and what he creates is Byzantine mosaic meets Medieval tapestry meets Gustave Klimpt meets material seduction, and global commerce. The results are stunning.
His work is site specific and the conceptual ideas flow through the entire exhibit: what moves, what changes, what we leave behind and how distance gains us a perspective and clarity of place while the intimacy of detail reveals tangible subtlety. His world view is one where nothing is fixed, there is beauty in the fluidity.
There are short films throughout that show in which Anatsui explains his process both practically (a typical wall hanging will take some 25 workers three months) and philosophically. My daughter ( an artist currently doing a turn as an art-world intern) and I wondered about the the more mundane aspects of the work as well: did he pay for people to collect the thousands of pieces of debris, if so how much? Were we right to feel discomfited by Anatsui’s use of unpaid interns- in a world that so freely abuses the rights of workers I balk at arguments that suggest “the honor” and “experience” of working for anyone is worth compromising our sense of what’s fair. Neither of these topics came up in the show, but a discarded argument has as much power as a discarded bottle cap when joined in powerful numbers.
El Anatsui’s work is still mesmerizingly beautiful despite the pragmatic musings of two pecuniarily pressured women. But having just finished Zola’s Rome, (despite never actually beginning it- but never mind that) the interior space of my head still rattled with Pierre’s lament, In a quivering voice Pierre was bold enough to answer: “I look for some kindness and justice.” (87)