By David Breslin, guest curator of El Anatsui
Though one of the tasks of a curator and art historian is to find words for visual experiences, I’m mostly struck dumb and dumber when I stand on the terrace of Stone Hill and look toward the mountains in Vermont.
I find myself wondering, in something like a fever pitched by being totally in the moment, whether the bright green of the trees and earth is radiating toward me or if I’m inexplicably being drawn into it. I have nearly the same physical reaction when I stand in front of the three sculptures by El Anatsui that constitute our summer show at Stone Hill.
Giving myself over to their beauty, I get lost in things formal and aesthetic: the layering and repetition of color, the play of patterns, the heft and heave of material that intimate mass and space. So, yes, I take the bait. Beauty is the lure.
When we look closely at the sculptures, we see that color, weight, and form are the properties of the aluminum bottle tops that Anatsui uses to construct his works. But, for Anatsui, there is nothing neutral or natural—or even immediately beautiful—about those aluminum tops. It is an object lesson in history. Anatsui has said about his 2002 discovery of these materials:
Several thoughts went through my mind when I found the bag of bottle tops in the bush. I thought of the objects as links between my continent, Africa, and the rest of Europe. Objects such as these were introduced to Africa by Europeans when they came as traders. Alcohol was one of the commodities brought with them to exchange for goods in Africa. Eventually alcohol became one of the items used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They made rum in the West Indies, took it to Liverpool, and then it made its way back to Africa. I thought that the bottle caps had a strong reference to the history of Africa.
Though the hook is beauty and we’re given the physicality of these sculptures to contend with, Anatsui also leaves us with the weight of time. It is a reminder that history is always around us—surrounding us like the mountains we see everywhere from Stone Hill.
El Anatsui (Ghanaian, born 1944), Intermittent Signals, 2009. Found aluminum and copper wire, 11 x 35 ft. (335.3 x 1066.8 cm). The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica [Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY]
Detail of El Anatsui (Ghanaian, born 1944), Strips of Earth’s Skin, 2008. Found aluminum and copper wire, 12 ft. 10 in. x 22 ft. 10 in. (330.2 x 696 cm). The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica [Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY]