Alcohol connects. It runs through generations; it runs through genes; it forms our relations and commerce; it’s in the blood. We may even acknowledge that our significant relationships began “under the influence.” We like to privatize alcohol, as we do everything else, as an individual’s choice/problem. The artist, El Anatsui, however, knows differently. This artist, born in Ghana and a resident of Nigeria, understands alcohol as a web of global connection, a liquid net. To anyone who has lived in an alcoholic family or with an alcoholic partner, this comes not so much as a revelation as it does with a gentler, of-course-it-is-so recognition. The mirror of alcohol catches everybody.
Shimmery, metallic, golden, red, silver, gleaming, brilliant: The sculpture draws us powerfully. It draws as alcohol does to those who love it. El Anatsui’s works are massive, bunched and curving, piece-work sheets of small foils that evoke the associations and attraction of gleaming gold and spangled color. They look wealthy, powerful, Byzantine, mosaic-like (á la Ravenna or Gustav Klimt): the stuff of empires. Exactly. They are made from the stuff of empires—the liquor trade. Entirely formed of aluminum foil caps and screw bands from liquor bottles pieced by tiny copper wires, the giant sculptures (Intermittent Signals measures 11 by 35 feet) quaver with thousands of metal pieces, quilt-like, yet hard. Each of the three magisterial works in El Anatsui at the Clark Art Institute is expertly installed to exhibit the protean possibilities of the the foil strips and loops. They bend, undulate, carve space, turn corners, enunciate voids, cast shadows, and sometimes trail along the floor, as though a wall mosaic could become curvaceously endowed and dance in luxury and splendor.
Ah, alcohol! If you were raised in an alcoholic culture, as was I, you know that the trauma, dislocations, and “terrible stuff” of which we are countlessly reminded with alcohol and drugs, is not the full story. There is a grandeur to alcohol, a seduction, a warm river of seeming potentiality, shine. The alcoholic is so often charming, creative, vivacious, vital, a raconteur or lover, larger than life. For excess and its damage, he/she is often condemned, but at bottom we know that those very qualities of excess are the same ones that contributed to this person’s passionate magnetism. It is so easy to be drawn in. Alcohol makes you big before it makes you small. Read the labels from Anatsui’s Nigerian liquors: “Ultimate,” “Star,” “Pilot,” “Headmaster,” “Flying Horse,” “First Lady.” Growing up in an alcoholic home can be like a fairy tale where the prince keeps turning into a frog, instead of the other way around. And the empire, well, it is a swamp, a fetid pile of waste, but ever in one’s mouth lingers the taste of gold plenitude that has nothing to do with actual survival and everything to do with imagination.
Anatsui reminds us that empires were built on alcohol, which came to Africa in the form of distilled liquor with the European slave trade. In this liquid triangle, hard liquor was traded for slaves, who were shipped in the middle passage to American plantations in order to raise crops for more distilled liquor, bottled in North America or Europe, and returned to Africa for further trade. The artist calls liquor a currency, and by that logic his works are truly gold, though they may be fashioned from piles of waste dumped into the bush by a neighborhood liquor distillery. To think of the role that alcohol has played in the colonialism of the African continent and the forced transport, brutal exploitation and death of countless enslaved persons is to draw a new map of the world whose edges are as porous as a liver with cirrhosis.
Many commentators remark on the resemblance of Anatsui’s sculpture to kente cloth, the renown weaving of the Ashante and Ewe peoples of Ghana. The artist, who is Ewe, grew up in a family with weavers of this resplendent, royal cloth. In fact, he calls his work gawu, which means “metal cloak” in Ewe; one 2005 work he has titled After Kings. Alcohol built kingdoms and wrecked people. Drink allows a chemically induced aggrandizement whose power is undeniable, both in its personal permission for illusory dreams and in its connective and potentially devastating multigenerational effects on family and society. El Anatsui has literally picked up the pieces. Using the help of a workshop of weavers, he has adopted trash, impressed with the lips, sweat, and speech of drinkers, and recycled their wasted dreams into sculptures that are stable, flexible, beautiful, and connective to both Western and African traditions. They remind us that dreams and destruction are often woven together, crossing centuries and continents.