Africa’s El Anatsui at the ROM

A Sunday afternoon touring the Royal Ontario Museum…. Deeply influenced by his birth continent, El Anatsui is probably Ghana’s best-known artist export. He resides and works in Nigeria and his is a methodical and calm manner that remakes and repurposes items into world-class art.

The breadth of detail and required imagination in folding, manipulating, shaping, and essentially mapping colorful liquor bottle-tops from gin, rum and wine into a complex design pattern that creates color harmony and illuminates color-led African stories is, to say the least, extraordinary. From afar, the hung, bendable metal-weaved tapestries may appear as actual woven textiles, but upon closer inspection, re-seeing the art becomes a new experience. The viewer is drawn into the art because of its impressive scale and exquisite hand craftsmanship. Function meets wonderment in El Anatsui’s trademark tapestries! Watch the trailer to Susan Vogel’s film on the artist and his work: Fold Crumple Crush: The Art of El Anatsui.

The show’s curators present well the collection of wood works, clay works, aluminium works, sculptures and tapestries, in terms of variety and flow occupying the entire exhibition floor while consistent are the artist’s lingering themes of mobility, flexibility and dialogue. But the fourth floor of the ROM is a challenging space by virtue of its recreated design plan by Daniel Libeskind despite its moveable walls. I can sympathetically imagine the issues that arise each time the curatorial team hand an exhibit in this space. As a consumer of art and borderless culture, and someone innately sensitive to space and light, the mise en scène of one El Anatsui installation left me particularly affected.

“Open(ing) Market” (2004) is a vast sculptural display of thousands of tin boxes and three larger opened suitcases, all wood-painted and tin-papered in colorful brands such as Milo, Emel and one strangely lined with the business card of the Victoria Miro Gallery! The work evokes communal living in an open marketplace, a co-existence that somehow works — quietly here. However, as confining as the museum space is with regard to where this large sculpture had been installed, I feel neither the space nor the art was optimized to the best of their combined potential. By extension, the piece wasn’t communicating with me.

Firstly, it was obscured by shade given that there were only ten track lights — not enough — fixed to the high, jagged ceiling which shone onto and away from El Anatsui’s work. Secondly, as I stood behind the rope I imagined a mirror reflection of equal jaggedness to mimic its strangely geometrical quarters hung from atop the ceiling and facing down onto the entire limited area so to reflect an aerial view of this bustling ‘market’. In so doing, the viewer would’ve felt just how dynamic such a marketplace can actually be in real life, particularly in this closed, triangular area of the ROM, while the space unused between ceiling and floor would’ve been spoken for. In my non-curatorial opinion, I believe it would’ve reflected so much better El Anatsui’s recurring themes of movement, flexibility, and yes, dialogue!

I was also bothered by the static resonance of the boxes, big and small: they were snubbing me (and themselves) by only profiling their one side; I was hardly interacting with this ‘market’. I believe that sometimes the redundancy of a same object (for all intents and purposes) can create real dynamism and positive emotion which I had memorably experienced at other art shows. On the opposing wall, still in the same shared space, hung “Zebra Crossing III” (2007) for which another version was donated to the AGO by Dr. Murray Frum. Here again, space appears to have been at a premium — and also paying the mortgage to the detriment of easy viewer engagement.

Overall, however, I was pleased with my two-hour visit to the ROM. I appreciated Julie Crooks guided tour of El Anatsui’s work. Although, upsetting was how often her passionate delivery was disrupted by a toddler’s screeching while the parents were impervious to the frustration it caused Ms Crooks’ group as we struggled to engage with her commentary. Kind note to parents: Please be considerate to all visitors and exit the room until calm has returned.

The El Anatsui exhibit at the ROM closes on 27 February 2011. If you miss it in Toronto you’ll have another chance to see it when it travels to the Museum for African Art in New York.

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