GRAVITY AND GRACE: Monumental Works by El Anatsui

El Anatsui

OCTOBER 25, 2013 – FEBRUARY 9, 2014

The celebrated work of El Anatsui strikes a rare combination of stunning beauty, labor-intensive process, and deep metaphorical and poetic meaning. A global artist, Anatsui draws on artistic and aesthetic traditions from his birth country of Ghana; his home in Nsukka, Nigeria; and various Western art forms. Anatsui’s work is about transformation. Using found materials such as printing plates, milk tin lids, and aluminum liquor bottle caps allows the artist full freedom to improvise and invent. Anatsui is also captivated by the history of use that such materials retain. For his metal wall hangings, Anatsui recycles bottle caps from a distillery in his home town, piecing them together to form monumental curtains patterned with rows upon rows of different brands of liquor bottle caps. For the artist, given liquor’s key history in the slave trade, these works reference relationships between Europe, Africa, and the United States. Not only does Anatsui’s alchemical transformation of discarded materials raise pressing issues of global consumerism, but it highlights the blurring of geographic identities. Gravity and Grace features monumental wall and floor sculptures widely considered to represent the apex of the artist’s career. In addition, a series of drawings illuminates the artist’s process, while wooden wall reliefs reference his earlier work in wood and bear fascinating compositional relationships to the large metal pieces.

A traveling exhibition, each installation of Gravity and Grace is different, because Anatsui encourages museum staff members to “sculpt” each work as they install it. “A human life is constantly in a state of change,” states the artist. “I want my artwork to replicate that...I know there is an artist in each of us...And the idea of giving freedom to people to configure my works is to awaken the artist in them.” Works are condensed, expanded or reshaped to fit the space and sensibility of each institution. At once sculpture and painting, Anatsui’s wall hangings drape, ripple, and cascade to reflect light and create shadowy pockets. As has been enthusiastically noted in reviews around the world, viewers of Anatsui’s work exult in its overwhelming splendor and in each work’s contradictory combination of weight and lightness. This dual sensation of materiality and ethereality is both physical and metaphorical. Just as each work is greater than the sum of its thousands of parts, its meaning transcends the particular cultural influences that inform the artist’s practice. Anatsui’s assembled objects embody a universality that cuts across geographic and cultural boundaries.
Born 1944 in Ghana, El Anatsui has lived and worked in Nigeria since 1978. He received a BA from College of Art, University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana; and a Postgraduate Diploma, Art Education, University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. He has recently given up his position as a professor of art at University of Nigeria, Nsukka to concentrate on his studio work. Anatsui’s work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Akron Art Museum, High Museum of Art, and Denver Art Museum, among many others. He participated in the Venice Biennale in 1990 and 2007. A traveling retrospective, El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, was organized by the Museum for African Art in 2010. A version of Gravity and Grace toured Japan in 2010-2011 under a different title.

GRAVITY AND GRACE: Monumental Works by El Anatsui was organized by the Akron Art Museum and made possible by a major grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Support for the Des Moines Art Center's participation in this exhibition provided by Wells Fargo, Faegre Baker Daniels, Marty Gross, and the Robert Lehman Foundation.

Media support provided by Medicom.


El Anatsui (Ghanaian, b. 1944)
Gravity and Grace, 2010
Aluminum and copper wire
145 5/8 x 441 inches
Installation at the Akron Art Museum, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY
Photo by Andrew McAllister, Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum

entirely unexpected