In June 2012, visitors to the Akron Art Museum will enjoy the unprecedented opportunity to marvel at an acclaimed body of artwork by an international artist at the height of his career and most of which has never before been seen in North America.
Since the Akron Art Museum’s expansion and reopening in 2007, Dzesi II, the dazzling large-scale metallic tapestry made by Anatsui from aluminum liquor bottle caps and copper wire, has become one of the most iconic works in the museum’s collection. Befitting the museum’s yearlong 90th anniversary celebration, it is organizing Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, which will premiere in Akron June 17 – October 7, 2012 and tour nationally through 2014.
“As the first modern and contemporary art museum in the United States to collect the work of El Anatsui, the Akron Art Museum is honored to work with El on this major national traveling exhibition,” said Dr. Mitchell D. Kahan, museum director and CEO.
Organized by Interim Chief Curator Ellen Rudolph, in collaboration with the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Gravity and Grace highlights Anatsui’s most recent work and features twelve monumental metal wall and floor sculptures widely considered to represent the apex of the artist’s career. In addition, a series of drawings illuminates the artist’s process, while wooden wall reliefs reference his extensive work in wood and display fascinating compositional relationships to the large metal pieces. The works traveled in Japan in 2010-11 as part of an exhibition curated by Japanese art historian Yukiya Kawaguchi.
El Anatsui’s work has won worldwide acclaim for its power and splendor. He is widely celebrated for transforming discarded objects into shimmering, pliable artworks of monumental beauty. Drawing on artistic and aesthetic traditions from his birth country of Ghana, his home in Nigeria and various Western art forms including modernist and post-modern modes of expression, Anatsui culls from his environment, both natural and manmade, as a source of material and motivation.
Merging personal, local and global concerns into his work, Anatsui has said he is inspired by the “huge piles of detritus from consumption” due to West Africa’s limited recycling technology. Cultural, economic and social issues of colonialism, globalism, waste and consumerism are explored under the cloak of beauty.
In Nigeria, local distilleries produce dozens of different brands of spirits in bottles of various sizes that are recycled after use. The discarded aluminum tops, seals and labels, however, are gathered by the artist. After being bent, twisted and pieced together, they are transformed into massive, richly colored and luxuriously textured tapestries. Given liquor’s key history in the slave trade, these works reference earlier relationships between Europe, Africa and the United States.
Anatsui is also captivated by the history of use that such materials retain, reflecting the social “lives” and meanings of the original objects. Explains the artist, his works “become loaded – ‘charged’ is maybe the right word – with a lot of meaning, and talking about all the various states that they’ve gone through or the various uses that they’ve been put to – this is all written upon them.”
In Peak, 2010, the artist was inspired by the mountains of used tin milk cans growing in West Africa. “A lot of things which are made in Europe and America … arrive in certain kinds of packaging, for example, fresh milk comes in tins. We have our own milk too, of course, but in addition there are huge imports of milk from outside.” Peak, according to the artist, examines consumption and the various physical landmarks that trash generates in different parts of the world. Regarding the use of milk tins in Peak, Anatsui responded, “The format that I find very effective with them is piling them into heaps – or peaks, since the commonest imported brand is Peak Milk!”
Anatsui’s metal works erase the traditional distinction between painting and sculpture. “At once sculpture and painting, his shimmering wall hangings drape, ripple and cascade to reflect light and create shadowy pockets, creating a fascinating interplay of color, shape and fluidity,” commented Akron Art Museum’s Rudolph. “As viewers, we must not only absorb the overwhelming splendor of each piece, but the artworks’ presence confronts us with a contradictory combination of weight and lightness, both physical and metaphorical.”
As the exhibition travels to other venues, each installation of Gravity and Grace will be slightly different. The artist encourages museum staff to “sculpt” each piece as they install it. Works will be therefore be condensed, expanded or reshaped to fit the space and sensibility of each institution. “A human life is constantly in a state of change,” states the artist. “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.”
“Akron visitors will be awed,” said Rudolph, “by an exhibition so large in scale that it overflows beyond the 7,000 square feet of the special exhibition galleries into the collection galleries as well as the lobby.” Key Anatsui works will be installed in the Beatrice Knapp McDowell Grand Lobby and the Sandra L. and Dennis B. Haslinger Family Foundation Galleries, providing visitors the opportunity to explore the artist’s relationship to his contemporaries. Installing Anatsui’s work with Sol LeWitt, Morris Louis and Frank Stella will allow visitors to discover different approaches to abstraction.
Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works of El Anatsui invites visitors to question where art comes from as well as explore the development of works by this internationally celebrated artist. In his work, Anatsui strikes a rare combination of stunning beauty, fascinating communal process and deep metaphorical and poetic meaning. Just as the work is greater than the sum of its thousands of parts, its meaning transcends the particular cultural influences that contribute to the artist’s psyche and embody something universal that strikes a chord in every one of us.
About the Artist
Throughout his career El Anatsui has experimented with a variety of media including wood, ceramics and paint. In recent years, he has focused on discarded metal materials, for which his art is best known today.
Born 1944 in Ghana, El Anatsui has lived and worked in Nigeria since 1978. He earned a bachelor’s from College of Art, University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Art Education, University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. In 2008, in order to focus on his studio work, he resigned his longtime position as a professor of art at University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he began teaching in 1975.
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, Akron Art Museum, High Museum of Art and Denver Art Museum among many others. He participated in the Venice Biennale in 1990 as well as 2007, when his large works became the Biennale’s most talked-about, photographed and reproduced works of art, catapulting the modest Nigerian art professor to worldwide prominence after forty years working as an artist. A traveling retrospective, El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, was organized by the Museum for African Art in 2010.
About the Akron Art Museum
The Akron Art Museum, dedicated to enriching lives through modern art, showcases regional, national and international art created since 1850. The museum’s collection houses over 5,000 objects. Particular areas of strength include contemporary painting and sculpture and 20th century photography. Nearly a dozen exhibitions each year present prominent artists in various media including painting, sculpture, photography, video, design and glass.
The museum’s internationally acclaimed expansion, designed by Austrian architectural firm COOP HIMMEL(B)LAU, opened to the public in July 2007. The new John S. and James L. Knight building features a soaring glass and steel structure described by critics as a work of art itself.
In addition to its ever-changing collection and exhibitions, the museum offers many opportunities to discover new perspectives through dynamic programs that include films and videos, lectures, workshops, tours and concerts.
Related Exhibition Programming in Akron
Dialogue with Artist
June 16, 6 pm
To kick off the opening festivities of Gravity and Grace, global artist El Anatsui will participate in a dialogue with Interim Chief Curator Ellen Rudolph at the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s Main Library Auditorium, across the street from the museum. Tickets are $7 for members and $15 for nonmembers (includes admission to the Opening Party which follows). Reservations are strongly suggested. To purchase your tickets, please visit http://akronartmuseum.org/calendar/details.php?unid=2690
June 16, 7 – 10 pm
After the dialogue with the artist, celebrate the national premiere of Gravity and Grace featuring the awe-inspiring work by one of the art world’s most notable international artists. Visitors are invited to the museum to view these monumental works before the exhibition opens to the public. Refreshments and musical entertainment will be provided. Admission to only the opening party is free for members and $10 for nonmembers and may be purchased that evening at the museum’s Visitor Services desk.
The exhibition and national tour of Gravity and Grace: The Art of El Anatsui is organized by the Akron Art Museum and made possible by a major grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
El Anatsui’s visit and lecture are made possible by a gift from The Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation.