Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Who is El Anatsui?

“Art grows out of each particular situation, and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up.” -El Anatsui

A few weeks ago, the professor of my African Art class offered all of her students an opportunity for extra credit. All we had to do was visit El Anatsui’s Gawu Exhibit at the National Museum of African Art and three points would be added to our final class grade. This sounded like a pretty good deal to me. So I went to the museum, but with a more reluctant spirit than I would have had were I going to almost any other.

Normally, I would have been excited to look at one of my favorite pieces of art again or to see something entirely new. At the very least, I would look forward to getting out of College Park for a few hours and spending some time in DC. However, African Art has never been my favorite artistic genre. I would much rather look at one of the idealized, romantic scenes of a Fragonard painting than an African tribal mask by some unknown artist.

When I first entered the exhibit, however, I was somewhat taken aback by the monumentality and uniqueness of the works. A moment after my initial surprise, I was able to take in the entire room. My eyes were initially drawn to what appeared to be a small mountain range constructed entirely of peak brand milk cans. The room was divided into two sections by a massive wall constructed of long, flat steel sheets. The normally white walls of the gallery seemed to be covered in huge colorful cloths. Only with closer examination did I realize that what appeared to be soft, moveable kente cloth was actually numerous pieces of aluminum held together with copper wire. Needless to say, I was amazed.

I knew a little bit about El Anatsui before going to the Gawu exhibit, but not enough to capture the true essence of his work. My professor had told us the El Anatsui was an artist from Ghana who used recyclable material in his sculptures to comment on a loss of tradition and a new culture based on material goods. When El Anatsui actually came to my art class to speak he explained to inquisitive students that he simply used whatever materials presented themselves to him. El Anatsui’s work has traveled around the world, and his social commentary is one that can be universally understood. Why then I wonder is African art so frequently ignored in the art world? There is absolutely nothing about him in my massive African Art textbook. Furthermore, why shouldn’t his work be studied in classes on modern art as well?

It is hard to say that African art is underappreciated considering there is an entire Smithsonian museum dedicated to it. But then again, maybe it is. I admit that I probably would have been more likely to visit this exhibit on my own accord had it simply been labeled modern art and put on display at the Hirshorn. Unfortunately, I imagine there are many other museum goers who secretly feel the same. While El Anatsui’s African heritage adds a vital element to his work, its message might be more widely received were his works considered in a different light. After all, if Duchamp can be famous for turning a urinal on its side then why is El Anatsui not more well known? It seems to me that the art world is really missing out by undermining the importance of El Anatsui’s work and probably that of many other African artists as well. Maybe now, after this eye opening experience, I will think twice before going to see my favorite paintings for the hundredth time. I may even go back to the National Museum of African Art to see what else so called “African Artists” have to offer.

The Art of The Dunk

Tonight at 6:00 pm, the Washington Wizards face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 5th game of the NBA playoffs. This may seem like a strange thing to mention on a blog about art. After all, sports and art are not often considered in relation to each other. The stereotypical museum goer is certainly distinct from the popular image of a sports enthusiast. I guess, in a way, I myself break these stereotypes simply by being a lover of the arts and a loyal sports fan. However, I see no reason that the two should be kept separate. I think sports can be seen as art. As I see it, there is a certain style and grace with which a basketball player executes a slam dunk. I look at basketball, and sports in general, as another form of performance art much like theater and dance. So don’t forget to watch the Wizards tonight, support DC’s sports, and maybe even think of art in a whole new way.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Blossoms Galore

This weekend, April 12 and 13, is the last weekend of DC’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. A parade featuring high school marching bands from around the country, cherry blossom queens, and giant balloons and floats will march down Constitution Avenue from 7th to 17th Streets, NW, beginning at 10 am. For those interested in learning more about Japanese culture, the Sakura Matsuri, a Japanese Street Festival, will be held from 11 am to 6 pm after the parade. There will be Japanese food, art, music, and live stage performances. It is always a pleasure to see DC at its best when beautiful cherry blossoms line the streets. Don’t miss this opportunity, and while you’re there, visit to see one of DC’s museums. The Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture exhibition is open at the National Portrait Gallery and El Anatsui’s Gawu exhibit is showing at the National Museum of African Art. Both are free, so stop in for an hour or just a few minutes. So, if you are near DC this weekend, enjoy yourself and be sure to take advantage of these events.

Thursday, April 3, 2008