When many of us picture the “peak” of visual art, we imagine the work of Vincent Van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci selling for millions at Christie’s auction house or hushed salon-style galleries with Renaissance artworks in massive gilded frames. For me, that is not the peak of art, because, frankly, the “peak” of art does not exist. It is not something we should try to define, repeat or seek out. The Van Goghs and da Vincis that sell for millions are only some of the great art that this world has to offer and that we should value. Let us expand the world of “great art” that we hold in our minds, teach in our classrooms and display in museums.
In the collections of major U.S museums, white artists created 85% of the artworks and men 87%. Recently, museum employees and artists of color have pushed for a more diverse array of artists, mediums, ideas and meanings in museums, classrooms and discussions of fine art. Let us all be a part of that change, questioning our perceived hierarchies of art.
El Anatsui, one of the most prominent contemporary artists in Nigeria, often utilizes reused materials to create large-scale works that question colonialism, waste, environmental impact and place. Currently on view at the High Museum of Art, a large-scale sculpture entitled “Taago,” created by Anatsui, dominates the gallery wall.
It appears to be a hung cloth at a first glance, yet the gallery label explains to the visitor that it is a stationary arrangement of shiny bottle tops. The folds of the “metal-cloth” make me want to wrap myself up in it, but considering this is made from the metal tops of discarded liquor bottles, that may not be the best idea. My instinct to touch the work recalls the artist’s intention “to work with objects that have had a lot of human use because a certain charge is imbued.”
A specific essence of humanity has been loaded into these objects, both through the artist’s intentional fascination with the resume of human objects and through the energy organically imbued in our interaction with everyday objects. The artwork appears to vibrate from the small metal pieces of the reused bottles. While the artwork is stationary in the gallery space, the folds produced by the artist’s masterful manipulation of the shimmering bottle tops creates a vivid sense of movement. This movement seems to recall a sort of human contact, the fingers that have touched these reused objects and the transformations they have entailed as they moved through space. Anatsui commits himself “to create sculpture that defies categorization.”
I have truly never seen such a solid, yet soft sculpture. One so fluid, yet fixed. An artwork that recalls both ceremonial Kente cloth and modern metalwork. There is no single category one can logically define this sculpture with. Anatsui is a master of dichotomies rarely seen in the world of art, and the works of such brilliant contemporary African artists are unfortunately not featured enough in American museums, posters, classrooms, conversations and thoughts. I was thrilled to see the High Museum display this artwork with pride and adoration for its artistic skill and merit, as it deserves nothing less. I had the privilege to stand in awe of this artwork’s glory, as pictured below and I encourage all of you to do so, either in-person at the High Museum of Art or virtually through this column.
Chickering’s article is part of an ongoing column on underrated and unsung visual artwork. Read the other articles here.