The Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui has been exhibiting outside West Africa since at least 1990, when he first appeared at the Venice Biennale, but it seems to me that over the past year or two he’s everywhere I go. So I wasn’t surprised that one of his magnificent bottle-cap tapestries, Between Earth and Heaven, has just become the first contemporary African work to enter the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
It seems to me that with these tapestry wall hanging sculptures made from the detritus of global trade, with their plain reference at the same time to African kinte cloth, El Anatsui arrived at a perfect convergence of traditional craft and ironic postmodern consciousness, one that brings him every time to an outcome of old fashioned laugh-at-loud beauty. Last September I found a great example on the second floor of the de Young Museum in San Francisco, then ran across another a month later when I was ushered into the office of Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, who has one behind his desk. MacGregor said it does a wonderful light show all day in the changing registers of sunlight. And in June at the Venice Biennale there were two of the largest El Anatsuis I’d ever seen at either end of an immense dark brick gallery at the big international show organized by Rob Storr, the Biennale Director. They had the bounding surface incident of those poured pigment cascade paintings that Pat Steir was doing some years back, and the strangeness of a curtain for some West African production of the Ring cycle.
Which, come to think of it, would be an interesting idea.
The Met gets spanked all the time for not getting it right in the acquisition of contemporary art, but I don’t know how they could have gotten it righter than this.