“Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui,” appearing from now through Oct. 7 at the Akron Art Museum, is sure to be different at each venue it’s displayed, because the artist encourages the staff to “sculpt” each piece as it’s being installed. Organized by Ellen Rudolph, interim chief curator at the museum, in collaboration with the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the exhibit has never showed in North American and will tour nationally through 2014.
According to an Akron Art Museum press release, “Gravity and Grace” highlights Anatsui’s most recent work and features 12 monumental metal wall and floor sculptures as well as a series of drawings displaying the artist’s process. He is known for transforming discarded objects into shimmering, pliable artworks, and he draws on artistic and aesthetic traditions from his birth country of Ghana, his home in Nigeria and various Western artforms.
“We’re very fortunate the museum acquired this collection,” Rudolph said. “He has worked with many well-known curators and major museums, but his work was featured mostly in the context of African art, but he’s not just an African artist. People often get pigeon-holed, but he hit on a material everyone can relate to, and no one can deny the beauty as it appeals to the senses in so many ways.”
His textured tapestries explore the cultural, economic and social issues of colonialism, globalism, waste and consumerism. In Nigeria, local distilleries produce different brands of spirits in bottles that are recycled after use. The aluminum tops, seals and labels, however, are gathered by the artist and are bent, twisted and pieced together.
With each venue, the tapestries will look slightly different because of the customization involved in the exhibit’s installation.
“At first, it was really daunting to try to install somebody’s art, and it was hard to get used to the idea,” Rudolph said. “It was intimidating because he’s obviously quite brilliant, so we studied images of previous installations and discussed what worked and what didn’t.”
Rudolph said the work came folded up like blankets, and the staff would spread the pieces out on the floor to see how things were attached. Everyone was involved and everyone worked his or her brains to provide input.
“We did a dialogue with him. It was pretty terrifying awaiting his arrival to see his response,” she added. “He was surprisingly hands off and seemed pretty pleased, and even said, ‘Wow, I’ve never been able to make it look that good.'”
“A human life is constantly in a state of change,” said Anatsui. “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.”
Anatsui’s work is included in numerous public and private collections, including the British Museum, Centre Georges Pompidou, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the High Museum of Art and Denver Art Museum, among many others. A traveling retrospective, “El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa,” was organized by the Museum for African Art in 2010.
For more information about the exhibit and the El Anatsui, visit www.akronartmuseum.org