Ghanaian artist El Anatsui weaves his magic in upstate New York
The tiny hamlet of Kinderhook, New York - just a stone’s throw from the mighty Hudson River - might seem an unlikely venue for the mesmerising sculptures of the internationally celebrated artist El Anatsui. But then Chelsea dealer Jack Shainman has long believed that this setting, where he runs another gallery, The School, is just the right spot to showcase El Anatsui’s compelling work.
’One reason El Anatsui’s work is perfect for here is the sheer size of The School,’ says Shainman, referring to his 30,000-square-foot gallery with its soaring twenty-four-foot ceilings. The building is a former school in a federal revival building on a leafy street. Just two hours from Chelsea, The School is in close proximity to The Clark Institute and Mass MoCA, as well as the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College.
’El Anatsui: Five Decades’ is a comprehensive exhibition consisting of 40 works, marking the first anniversary of Shainman’s new space. El Anatsui, who was recently awarded the Venice Biennale’s highest honour, the Golden Lion for Lifetime achievement, is known for his assemblages, which make up part of the exhibition. Formed from hundreds of discarded liquor bottle lids and cans, they are considered wall installations, crossing the boundaries between sculpture and tapestry. Also on view are his ceramic and manganese works and his wooden sculptures, some dating from the 1970s. El Anatsui’s distinctive artistry is his ability to create an entirely new vocabulary from simple materials that have been discarded. They speak of the environment, consumption and waste.
’Beginning in the 1970s, when El Anatsui was creating pots that he broke into shards and reconstituted into sculptures, he was already addressing the notion of change and transformation,’ says Chika Okeke-Agulu, who has served as the artist’s assistant and taught alongside him at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka during the 70s. Now a Princeton University professor of art, Okeke-Agulu adds that El Anatsui has always seen his work as reflecting devastation and colonisation. Just as El Anatsui turned to a chainsaw as a carving tool, these early examples speak of other possibilities for his media and an entirely new approach to sculpture.
One of the most astonishing aspects of this exhibition is witnessing, up close, El Anatsui’s most immense works, such as ’Tiled Flower Garden’ (2012), which snakes 30 feet along the floor. Equally fascinating is the vibrancy of his vibrant palette, with its yellows, silvers and oranges.
’This gallery was a dream of mine and now I have a fitting environment to spotlight El Anatsui’s monumental work,’ says Shainman.