Critiquing the Critique: El Anatsui and the Politics of Inclusion

Sunanda K Sanyal

(Published: World Art, 4(1), 2014: 89-108)

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) was a Cuban artist of mixed race. In the 1980s, his painting Jungle (1943) hung near the coatroom in the first floor lobby of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, prompting the poet and critic John Yau to sharply criticize the museum’s influential curator William Rubin (Yau 1990). As a custodian of modernism, Yau observed, MoMA had ignored the role of Lam’s multiethnic heritage that makes his creative approach to Primitivism quite different from that of the European modernists. Instead, he was presented merely as a peripheral follower of icons like Picasso. Thus, while including Lam in the modernist canon, the museum had at the same time placed him–quite literally–at its doorstep.

In the last couple of decades, the above scenario has changed in some ways and stayed much the same in others. In this era of multiculturalism and market-driven inter-continental connections, the conventional assumptions behind the term ‘contemporary art’ have been questioned, the demographic and the venues of international exhibitions have become more diverse, and immigrant artists as well as many working from their home bases have gained better exposure than before. What is more, unlike Lam, some of these artists have even made into the actual galleries of major museums. The Ghanaian-born, Nigeria-based El Anatsui is among the most prominent of such artists. During the last decade, Anatsui has emerged in Europe and the United States as an “overnight sensation” (Enwezor 2011: 98). In fact, except for the South African William Kentridge, no artist from sub-Saharan Africa–and no black artist, for sure–has received such international acclaim. Many major American museums have been competing to have Anatsui’s work in their collections; a large retrospective show has toured international venues;[i] a renowned American scholar of African art has made a documentary film about him; and of course, critics have been generously attentive to his work.[ii]

Anatsui has been exhibiting internationally, and attending artist residencies and workshops for almost forty years. Yet, until recently, he was a marginal figure in Western museum and academic circles. His rapid ascent into the spotlight began with his participation in several high-profile shows around the middle of the last decade, the most publicized of which was his prominent presence at the Venice Biennale of 2007. Curiously, the art market and much of the writing about him–especially what has been published in the popular press–have either overlooked or only cursorily referred to his years of rigorous exploration of clay and wood. Instead, they seem exclusively focused on the exhibits in these blockbuster shows: large, colorful, metallic tapestries, popularly called the ‘cloths’, made from discarded caps of a variety of liquor bottles collected in Nigeria. This recent interest of Anatsui’s Western audience in his bottle-top tapestries is what draws my attention in this paper.

Since the turn of the century, the efficacy of art criticism has come under close scrutiny. Referring to the pluralism of contemporary art, a number of discussants have questioned the authority of critics’ evaluations of artists. Arthur Danto, for example, insists that, since the posthistorical pluralism has relativized contemporary art, any critical attempt to privilege certain kinds of art over others, which was effective until the mid-century, is no longer tenable (Danto 1997). Boris Groys concurs: “the critic wields the least power of anyone in… [the art] industry.” He also maintains that “the critic…has no real chance to write about an artist if the artist isn’t already established” (Groys 2008: 116). In other words, the art critic’s power to make or break careers has waned. I argue, however, that the pluralism of contemporary art hardly offers a level playing field in the international arena. Despite the growing awareness of culture’s permeable boundaries across the planet, centers and margins are still very much extant, as is the imbalance of power on many levels—resources, access, mobility, and most importantly, interpretative agency (art writing and ownership of meaning, for instance). Despite acknowledging the pluralism of the current era, both Danto and Groys fail to recognize this hierarchy. Both address the artist-critic dynamic from a narrow, homogenous perspective.

For artists of non-Western origin, especially those who live and work primarily in their local spaces, the notion of the diminished influence of the critic is largely irrelevant. For such an artist, to perform in the international arena today still requires affirmation from critics and theorists who not only operate in Euro-American institutions, but who also specialize in contemporary Western art. No matter how one reckons with it, it still matters very much who speaks for this artist and where. William Kentridge wasn’t a completely unknown name outside South Africa, yet it was not until a scholar of the heft of Rosalind Krauss wrote about him in the high-profile American journal October in 2000 that he became a phenomenon, particularly in the United States (Krauss, 2000). Likewise, even though Anatsui had been discussed many times in insightful essays in journals like Nka and African Arts by scholars seriously committed to his work, the impact wasn’t palpable until the renowned curator, critic, and Yale professor Robert Storr emphatically endorsed his ‘cloths’ at the Venice Biennale of 2007. Since then, press coverage has continued to augment his reputation.

Convinced therefore of the crucial role of Western art writers in the careers of non-Western artists, this paper examines some of the views articulated in the reviews of El Anatsui’s wall-hangings. My attention is not so much to the actual objects, as to the texts about them. In fact, while treating Anatsui as a case study, I address issues on a broader scale. It is worth noting here at least three factors prompting my focus on critiques in the popular press, with less emphasis on scholarly writing. First, while academic scholarship is more instrumental in shaping discourses of art in the long run, writing in the popular press is more immediately effective in influencing public taste. Second, almost always unfettered by extensive research, methodological rigor, but also academic jargon, the views offered in the latter possess a sense of journalistic immediacy that I believe betrays the agendas which I aim to locate. Third, it is the popular press that a contemporary artist of non-Western origin initially confronts when participating in international venues. I discuss some of these critiques to expose the banal form of multiculturalist conviction that influences their approach to Anatsui’s work, and which ultimately undermines the complexity of his creative production. More importantly, I argue that the enthusiasm of the art establishment for Anatsui’s wall pieces over his earlier work, particularly the attempt to identify him as a ‘global’ artist, is symptomatic of what I call the politics of inclusion. Although typical of the current era, this politics is not fundamentally different from the one that informed MoMA’s treatment of Wifredo Lam thirty years ago.

Why has the Western art world suddenly fallen in love with Anatsui’s wall pieces? To begin with, consider New York Times critic Ken Johnson’s remarks about Anatsui’s 2008 show at Jack Shainman Gallery. “Mr. Anatsui’s risk”, Johnson writes, “is that his work…..might become formulaic. What happens when the novelty wears off and making gorgeous drapery out of liquor bottle caps becomes a routine craft?” (Johnson 2008). Coming from Johnson, such an observation is hardly surprising, since he is known for his dismissive comments bordering on insensitivity, even affront. [iii] The art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu, a former Nigerian student of Anatsui, has already taken Johnson to task for his obvious ignorance of the history of Anatsui’s work apparent in this hasty remark (Okeke-Agulu 2010: 33). I, however, draw attention to a different issue here. By employing the term “novelty,” Johnson inadvertently reveals what I believe is a crucial factor behind the recent popularity of Anatsui’s metal sculptures in the West. In a consumer culture wedded to the notion of ‘the bigger the better’, these enormous, spectacular, colorful tapestries appear as novel indeed. Novelty is exotic by itself, but all the more when it comes out of Africa. Hence the admission of a curator that he was “blown away” by the tapestries;[iv] the Hegelian hangover of a critic who searches for a zeitgeist in the ambience of the wall pieces (Seelig 2012: 6); and the “arrival” of another critic at “uplift” and “resolution” amidst what she sees as the pervasive pessimism of contemporary art.[v] In its uncritical, exoticizing impulse, such exuberance suggests to me a search for authenticity in otherness, not unlike the hippie enchantment with Eastern philosophies in the 1960s. Yet since novelty is always ultimately a suspect due to its momentary appeal, another attribute of the wall pieces must be acknowledged in order to save them from such a charge: made of industrial detritus, they seem also to offer room for references to a variety of postwar Western art, such as large-scale abstraction, the abject, and recycling as a creative strategy. In other words, unlike his ceramic and wood sculptures, Anatsui’s bottle-top projects are attractive in their alterity as novelty, yet at the same time appear more adaptable to the familiar referential framework of recent art.

The fascination for these sculptures dictates critics to downplay Anatsui’s earlier work in ceramic and wood. For example, in a startling instance of cultural myopia, Greg Cook of The Phoenix suggests that “For all their craft and lively patterns, his wood and ceramic sculptures can seem like copies of traditional works or uninspired knockoffs” (Cook 2011). However, it is Alexi Worth of the New York Times, who, unlike most other writers in the popular press, went to Nigeria on assignment to meet Anatsui at work, provides a glimpse of the more complicated issue at work behind this attitude. “African critics”, Worth writes, “who knew and championed Anatsui’s work first, tend to emphasize its continuity.” Then, after quoting Okwui Enwezor’s insistence that the artist’s current production be understood in connection with his past work and in the context of his local culture, Worth observes: “In the West, however, there is a divide between the earlier works, which can seem heavy-handed in their Africanness, and the new sculptures, which are more spectacular and, at the same time, subtler” (Worth 2009). So it is what Worth sees as Anatsui’s “Africanness” that he and the other critics tend to evade and denigrate. On the other hand, Worth’s view of the current work as “subtler” suggests a deep reluctance to learn from those “African critics,” who apparently are able to see subtlety in the early work as well. Aside from the obvious ignorance and indolence factors, I see this evasion as rooted in the current practice of a populist multiculturalism.

In much of Western Europe and North America, the watershed events of the 1960s ushered in a pluralistic era, which, for the first time in history, made marginalized voices audible. Whether based on gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality, each identity found the opportunity to define its own subjectivity and challenge the normativities of postwar capitalist societies. Previously labeled subcultures at best, each now was able to claim its own discursive space. Eventually, however, it became clear that such aggressive assertions of difference bore severely reductive outcomes—becoming ‘the woman question’, ‘the race problem’ or ‘the queer issue’, making those identities evermore vulnerable to the exploitations of the dominant culture. Thus, it was recognized through the 1980s that, being fundamentally polymorphous, identity is neither a matter of rigid specificity nor simply one of many components in some magical melting pot.

Unfortunately, this self-critical reflection never made much impact outside academe and other intellectual circles. Most public institutions, not to mention the media and the political establishments of the Western democracies, have since cultivated –sometimes carefully, more often crudely–a convenient form of multiculturalism, aimed at a kind of contrived egalitarianism. While celebration of the uniqueness, of, say, various racial identities is important, it is deemed more desirable as well as pragmatic to ultimately envisage a color-blind, inclusive society, where people get along with one another without making too much fuss about difference. That inclusion on the basis of sameness does not necessarily assure equality does not seem to affect this belief. Fazal Rizvi echoes this view in his critique of the multiculturalist policies in Australia in the 1990s. “This form of pluralism”, writes Rizvi, “ignores the workings of power and privilege. It presupposes harmony and agreement as natural states within which differences can co-exist without disturbing the prevailing structural norms” (Rizvi 2003: 234). The disparity between sameness and equality is integral to the fundamentally problematic nature of the term ‘inclusion.’ It signifies incorporation of something or someone into an already existing system, space or paradigm. Whatever or whoever is included is expected to comply with the pre-existing norms, almost always without any power to change them. The term’s paradox is that while it commonly connotes a measure against exclusion or discrimination, it also invariably reinforces some form of hierarchy, once the outsider is in.  

Similar to–and partly overlapping with–this struggle of marginalized groups in Western societies, the postcolonial identity discourse has also oscillated between two poles. At one end is the notion of seemingly unbridgeable difference, segregating ‘outsiders’ from ‘insiders.’ The center takes advantage of this to otherize and exclude these new subjects, who, on their part, might claim the authenticity of that same outsider identity in order to voluntarily remain isolated from the center. At the other end is a multiculturalist gesture of inclusivity in the name of a singular humanity. It is the trickier maneuver of the two, due to its adherence to what Sally Price calls the “universality principle.”  Price rigorously demonstrates that, being deeply rooted in the colonial past and rejuvenated by the liberal camp of mid-century cultural politics, the rhetoric of universality glosses over all histories of difference and conceals hegemonic agendas in favor of some spurious and imagined commonalities (Price 1989: 23-36). The center professes such inclusivity to subsume colonial subjects in order to further empower itself, whereas the subjects might embrace this incorporation in the name of participation, modernization, and development. No matter how rigorously an identity claim shifts positions within this polarity, the two extremes keep haunting the space in between, producing a variety of influential binaries: tradition/modernity, non-West/West, difference/sameness, ethnology/art, exclusion/inclusion, and so on. And of all the formerly colonized regions, cultural identities of sub-Saharan Africa have been especially vulnerable to this tyranny of polarities. Let us not forget the legendary feud between Thomas McEvilley and William Rubin in the pages of Artforum in response to the blockbuster MoMa exhibition of 1984: Primitvism in Twentieth-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.[vi] Its notoriety aside, this encounter became memorable largely for underscoring the fundamental–if troubling—role of these polarities in postcolonial identity politics. 

To synopsize the debate rather crudely, McEvilley brought charges of ethnocentrism against the museum for its presentation of non-Western objects–a good proportion of which were from Africa– in a thoroughly ahistorical display, juxtaposed with the historically grounded creative achievements of Picasso and his cohort. He demanded acknowledgement of cultural distance from an outsider’s perspective. Rubin, on the other hand, argued that cultural difference, while admissible, is secondary to the objects’ status as art in the museum context. That the definition of “art” here has its own cultural specificity was of no concern to him. Instead, he resolutely maintained that the show gave the objects their due honor as masterpieces–not of this or that culture, but of humanity. Thus, in the light of the binaries I just listed, McEvilley’s emphasis on difference and his obsession with cultural context situate him more or less on the side of ethnology, whereas Rubin, with no less a utopian belief in an “affinity,” endorses a category called “art” which, for him, transcends any question of specificity. Let us quickly note that while the direction of creative influence here is reversed from what John Yau observed in MoMa’s treatment of Wifredo Lam, the basic premise of Rubin’s position in both cases is one and the same: it is a strategy of inclusion of alterity as worthy of the modernist canon only when so deemed by the canon itself. While each side in this famous encounter accuses the other of overdetermining non-Western cultures, both, in fact, are responsible for it, albeit in different ways. McEvilley primitivizes them in the name of defending difference, whereas Rubin disempowers them of their own agency by embracing them under the pretext of “affinity”.       

If we bring to this polarized debate the institutionally trained, internationally traveled, ambitious contemporary artists of African origin, the scene  becomes even messier, for the ethnology/art binary is subsumed by a vastly more influential, contemporary one: local/global. As with all binaries, there is a clear asymmetry of status between the two terms, with ‘global’ enjoying an unequivocal advantage over ‘local.’ What is more, in its ubiquitous (ab)use in recent years, ‘global’ has become a contemporary alternative to ‘universal,’ tacitly bestowed with all the connotations of the older term. Needless to say, ‘technology,’ which is among the most appropriate nouns today to be qualified by the adjective ‘global,’ plays a crucial part in this cover-up. As Jonathan Crary pointed out two decades ago, “…there continues to be a powerful and reciprocal relation between discourses on technology and themes of universality and emancipation…” (Crary 1994: 58). Thus empowered, ‘global’ has infiltrated all sorts of current identity politics, only to exacerbate confusion, since the other component–‘local’–has not undergone any such facelift. In fact, the former has managed to colonize the latter, robbing it of its own power to articulate difference. It does not, however, avoid the question of difference altogether; like all things ‘universal’, it grants difference minimal visibility. It is thus customary nowadays to hastily acknowledge difference, diversity or specificity, before downplaying it in favor of some kind of ‘common ground.’ Just as ‘global’ frequently functions as a decoy for ‘universal,’ this ‘common ground,’ I insist, is Rubin’s “affinity” in disguise. The only difference is that, while a disguise signifies something fake masking something else that is real, here what the mask conceals is no less artificial than the mask itself. This is a multicultural deal negotiated with the older ideals of modernity (and of modernism, in case of art) with regard to cross-cultural interactions through all the postmodernist shadowboxing toward the end of the last century. The French critic Nicolas Bourriaud identifies it as the product of the “second postmodern period” that followed the conclusion of the Cold War era, a period “less melancholic [than the “depressive” initial era of the 1970s and ‘80s]—but more multiculturalist” (Bourriaud 2009: 9). This disguised ‘global,’ which I see operating at the core of much of the Western critique of El Anatsui’s metal sculptures, is crucial to the politics of inclusion because it attempts to convince the margin to accept the dominant paradigm of art as its own.

There is no question that the bottle-top sculptures represent a breakthrough in Anatsui’s career. Yet to propose that it alone is sufficient to assert the richness of his creative enterprise is to endorse the troubling subtext of much of his current critical acclaim: the tricky question of quality. As Chika Okeke-Agulu remarks in his discussion of the inclusion of non-Western contributions in the disciplinary practice of art and art history, Western institutional thinking has long had “the tendency to assume that the quality of art history [and of art] outside the West must be measured by the extent to which it approximates the structure of and trends in Euro-American scholarship [and art]” (Okeke-Agulu 2013: 452). He further points out that this “hammer of ‘quality’” has long served as an effective tool for sustaining the homogeneity of the canon by keeping out artists and scholars who represent difference (Okeke-Agulu 2013: 453). In the light of Okeke-Agulu’s observations, I argue that much of the current appraisal of Anatsui’s art in the Western press seems to suggest that the bottle-top sculptures, as opposed to his previous work, have passed this test of quality, thus ensuring his niche in the international arena. My point is that just as a deceptively value-free yardstick of quality (among other things) has been instrumental in routinely excluding non-Western artists from international venues, it can have an equally crucial role in their inclusion, which is no less problematic. Therefore, I hasten to underscore that my inquiries and propositions in this paper consciously avoid any discussion of quality with regard to Anatsui’s work, not to mention any comparison between his current or previous productions on that ground. Instead, I find it more urgent to expose the reluctance to acknowledge his current art as a meaningful resolution of a much longer creative journey, and the hegemonic tendency latent in the enthusiasm to isolate this work as a contemporary phenomenon, and him as an attractive stranger.

Anatsui’s critics know full well that it is politically incorrect today to deny a non-Western artist’s local background entirely. Therefore, almost every essay and review mentions his origin and early education in Ghana, his familial attachment to the production of kente cloth, his Ewe ethnicity, his move to Nigeria’s University of Nsukka in 1975, and so on. But it is no more than lip service; in fact, some of the phrasings in different texts appear identical. In such a hasty and ill-informed biography, Anatsui’s appropriation of adinkra and kente patterns from the Ewe and Akan cultures of Ghana is most often lumped together with his use of uli and nsibidi motifs from the Igbo of Nigeria, his adopted culture. Africa emerges as a monolithic, condensed space, where his audience becomes simply “fellow Africans” (Cook 2011). Let us recognize the irony here, because that is precisely my point. Whereas this tendency to exoticize alterity is usually known to be an attribute of the politics of exclusion, the fact is that uncritical adherence to the other end of the local/global polarity equally trivializes difference.

This cursory attention to the African context is most often quickly compensated by an enthusiastic attempt at inclusion. There may not be a single paradigm any more that dominates the contemporary art scene, but there are multiple strands linked to legendary names. And the critics conjure them up to assign Anatsui’s ‘cloths’ a place in that hall of fame. Even though environmental art, as conceptualized and practiced in the West, has very little to do with Anatsui’s use of bottle-tops, we read about its proximity to the art of recycling and the abject (Nicholas 2010; Whyte 2010; Pollack 2008). The cornucopia of the surface repeatedly invites comparison with the shimmering paintings of Gustav Klimt (Brandenburg 2009; Rubinstein 2006: 161; Saccoccia 2011; Landi 2012). The role of fragments in constructing the surface recalls the pointillism of Georges Seurat. The undulating folds that play out differently at every installation invoke the idiosyncratic architectural surface of Antonio Gaudi (Rubinstein 2006: 161). The capacity of the largest pieces to wrap the entire facade of a building is a reminder of the wrappings of Christo and Jeanne-Claude (Worth 2009). The long list of parallels demonstrates an astonishingly naïve reliance on visual resemblance, which, as we all know, can be terribly deceptive in cross-cultural scenarios. “It’s possible,” states Alexi Worth, “that they [the ‘cloths’] may join the short list, along with Duchamp’s bicycle wheel, Rauschenberg’s bed and Koons’s basketballs, of masterpiece detritus….” Hence, he summarizes, Anatsui has “joined the big leagues” (Worth 2009). No wonder Elizabeth Harney reads such observations as “highly suspect and silly” (Harney 2011: 119). 

Indeed, does the panegyric above not ring a bell? I recall, for instance, from my student days the unambiguously condescending tone of the feeble multicultural efforts made by art history survey texts, H.W. Janson’s celebrated History of Art a pioneer among them. In a desperate attempt to be inclusive, the royal bronze portraits from Benin would be seen as rivaling Hellenistic Greek sculpture, and the Maya would be lionized as the Romans of Central America. It is another instance of that modernist search for “affinity,” where alterity is measured entirely by Western standards and is spoken for, so that it can be embraced with a semblance of equality. This is why I see the strategy behind the treatment of Wifredo Lam and El Anatsui, though decades apart, as basically the same. The former is only peripherally included, while the latter is assigned a spot in the center, but only on the center’s own terms. The covert hegemonic tendency to include a non-Western artist within a powerful genealogy of modern art, without interrogating the paradigmatic foundation of that genealogy, is equally active in both cases. This, to me, is more suspect than silly.     

Now, however, the influence of ‘global’ has altered the vocabulary of art criticism. No one attempts to pigeonhole Anatsui’s wall hangings. On the contrary, there is recognition –even if a superficial one– of indeterminacy, a popular legacy of postmodernism. Nor does anyone use obviously condescending phrases like ‘as good as,’ when comparing him with famous Western names. In fact, the overall sense–albeit often with cautious phrasing, apparent in Ken Johnson’s remarks–is that Anatsui’s creative enterprise is equal in quality to that of his Western counterparts. And yet all such adulations evince no awareness of what Okwui Enwezor sees as the “unevenness of global exchange” between contemporary African and Western art practices. “I think it is important,” Enwezor remarks,

…that we hold on to things that are specific to the subjectivity of the artist and to locations of practice that cannot be simply erased by the idealism of a global art scene that has no boundaries. To do so is to give the lie to the idea that the last twenty years [of marginalization of non-Western artists] did not take place… (Enwezor 2011: 98-9).

Without the reflections that Enwezor proposes here, the equal status accorded Anatsui turns out to be groundless and uncertain. The critics’ naïve longing for a ‘common ground’ defines their notion of ‘global,’ as is glaringly noticeable in the ecstatic comment from the Akron Art Museum, one of the many American venues of Anatsui’s exhibitions: “its [each bottle-top sculpture’s] meaning transcends the particular cultural influences that inform the artist’s practice. Anatsui’s assembled objects embody a universal relatability that strikes a chord in every one of us.”[vii] “Transcends” is obviously the magic word here, which justifies the museum’s endorsement of a non-Western artist by measuring him with a culturally specific yardstick disguised as a universal one. There is no question that most of these writers have noble intentions, but an odd combination of unawareness of one’s own ignorance and full confidence in one’s own ability to competently interpret contemporary art’s pluralism often results in puzzling contradictions in the writings of the same person. Steven Litt, for example, is critical enough to see the problematic side of arbitrary parallels drawn between Anatsui and various Western modernists (Litt 2012b), yet is too myopic in his enthusiasm for Anatsui’s ‘globalness’ to recognize his tacit condescension toward African cultures.  He begins another laudatory review with the following remark: “If you think that great contemporary art comes only from developed countries in the West, or from cities in fast-growing parts of China, India, or Latin America, think again” (Litt 2012a). I rest my case.    

As the popular press often finds vindication in writings by academics, the situation becomes much trickier when the latter evince some of the same problems I discuss above. Susan Vogel, a scholar of African art, is a case in point. A rigorous researcher and a lucid writer, Vogel has made immense contributions to the discipline of African art on scholarly, curatorial, and instructional fronts. My generation of academics is indebted to the versatility of her research interests and the dynamism of her presentation. Her intimate involvement with Anatsui’s recent work led not only to her documentary film about him, but also her most recent book, El Anatsui: Art and Life. Her meticulous documentation and analyses of Anatsui’s methods, materials, and concepts make this book an important chronicle of the work of this remarkable contemporary artist. However, it also demonstrates some of her ambivalences about, even misguided approaches to, what constitutes ‘global.’ Before addressing the book, I want to briefly cite an instance from one of Vogel’s other essays on Anatsui. Vogel comments in this exhibition review: “He [Anatsui] has produced artistic inventions that are significant far beyond Africa—that contribute to international world art.” Then she asks: “If his invention of international importance had been—for example—a fuel-efficient car, would the press ask him about Ewe customs related to fuel?” (Vogel 2011: 147). It is not difficult to see Vogel’s eagerness to resist any attempts from Western curatorial or critical circles to frame Anatsui’s current work around an essentialized African identity, along with her sincerity in presenting him as a global artist. But it is also difficult not to chuckle at the utter banality of the analogy she uses: the parallel between a manufactured commodity and art made by an individual. This can only result from a naïve faith in ‘global’ as an uncomplicated utopia of equal exchanges.

One of the problems of her book about Anatsui is that Vogel is not nearly as critical of the critics whom I have taken to task in this essay as she is about those who are eager to locate too much of ‘Africa’ in Anatsui’s work. While she admits that “its [Anatsui’s current art’s] affinity with Western art cannot be superficially glossed,” she also compromises this position by considering, in the same paragraph, those reviews simply to be “a natural attempt to understand Anatsui’s unconventional art in familiar terms” (Vogel 2012: 16). What is more, she observes that the “awakening interest in non-Western artists in the international world…. today has finally turned into a warm welcome” (Vogel 2012: 11). Synonymous with ‘inclusion’, a “welcome” is extended by a host to a guest, a person who, no matter how cordially received, does not belong to the space in question. The prerogative of its ownership always remains with the host. Thus, regardless of the honor and fanfare, such a gesture legitimates–rather than subverts–the implicit superiority claim of the genealogy of modern Western art. The book exudes a sense of urgency for us (for Vogel, anyway) to be grateful to those Western circles that have recognized Anatsui’s genius and embraced him as a ‘global’ artist. At this point, one is even tempted to see Vogel as a contributor to the politics of inclusion, not least because she frequently switches between the terms “global” and “universal” throughout her text.

Robert Storr, on the other hand, takes a different–and more reasonable—approach to the politics of difference. In his contribution to the catalog for the traveling show When I Last Wrote to You about Africa, he frankly admits: “Writing as a critic and curator of international contemporary art rather than as an expert in African art and its cultural context, my brief is different…” (Storr 2010: 59). He then devotes his essay to an ontological and aesthetic discussion of Anatsui’s wall pieces, examining their potential in the current context of abstraction. While he refers to a number of postwar artists in this context, there are significant differences between his references and the superficial parallels drawn by other writers. First, he mentions a range of artists, artistically and racially diverse, such as Allan Kaprow, Donald Judd, Sam Gilliam, and Yaoi Kusama. Second, he discusses only those artists who, like Anatsui, have ushered in meaningful transitions in postwar art by straddling conventional mediums and modes of representation. This situates Anatsui in a dialogic rather than an emulative relation with them. Third, even though Storr maintains a careful distance from a critical look at the politics of contemporary art, he openly acknowledges its heterogeneity without collapsing that observation into a vague reference to universality and transcendence. Thus, with regard to Anatsui’s status as a global artist, Storr’s awareness of his own limitations and strengths scores far better than Vogel’s self-confidence as an expert in contemporary African art. 

All non-Western contemporary artists with international aspirations must constantly struggle to locate themselves between an essentialized, monolithic ‘local’ and a vague, deceptive ‘global’.[viii] And for artists of African origin, nowhere is this struggle more intense than in the debate over exhibition sites. Yukiya Kawaguchi, the Japanese curator of the Anatsui exhibition A Fateful Journey at Osaka’s National Museum of Ethnology, recalls the criticism he faced from Nigerian intellectuals at Lagos, when he presented his plans for the exhibition. “Some wanted to know,” Kawaguchi reports, “Why the tour of the exhibition had to start from a museum of ethnology” (Kawaguchi 2011:109). The concern of Kawaguchi’s audience is legitimate indeed. The ethnology museum is such a powerful reminder of the colonial practice of primitivizing non-Western cultures and of obliterating individual agency beneath specimens and dioramas, that contemporary African artists are rightfully wary of it as a platform for exposure. What they resist is an invented Africa serving as a marker of their identity–Hegel’s and Conrad’s Africa, the notorious ‘Dark Continent’ that asserts nothing, contributes nothing, and is always spoken for. It is, in short, a distorted version of ‘local’ that they reject. What is more, when El Anatsui says that he is more comfortable with his presence at the Venice Biennale of 2007 “just as an artist,” compared to his previous participation in the same event in 1990 primarily as one of a group of African artists officially representing the continent (Vogel 2012: 89), it shows that the question of artistic agency can surface even within an art venue, where no ethnology museum is involved. It is important to note, however, that the refusal to be defined by an essentialized ‘local,’ and in contrast, the satisfaction at being able to perform in a wider space “just as an artist” suggests not some subconscious desire to respond to a ‘natural’ human bond (read: “affinity”), but the aspiration to be an equal shareholder of that space–to be actually global.

Let me cite another case to clarify what I mean: a critique by Olu Oguibe, another of Anatsui’s Nigerian students, of Thomas McEvilley’s interview of the Ivorian artist Ouattara. In the light of the McEvilley-Rubin exchange, this critique has an ironic, even amusing twist. McEvilley, whose attacks on Rubin were unusually harsh and occasionally even uncivil, here meets his match with Oguibe, who is no more concerned with propriety when addressing him than he was in his debate with Rubin. An infuriated Oguibe bashes McEvilley for what he reads as the senior critic’s primitivizing effort: his repeated questions about Ouattara’s ethnic background, family life, and childhood, while ignoring his role as an individual in the discourse of cotemporary art. “McEvilley drives his conversation with Ouattara,” explains Oguibe, “towards the realization of his preferred narrative, with questions not intended to reveal the artist as subject, but rather to display him as object, an object of exotic fascination” (Oguibe 1999: 18). Later in the text, he elaborates on the question of the subject position of an African artist:

Autonomy. Self articulation. Autography. These are contested territories in which the contemporary African artist finds herself locked in a struggle for survival, a struggle against displacement by the numerous strategies of regulation and surveillance that today characterize Western attitude toward African art. Within the scheme of their relationship with the West, it is forbidden that African artists should possess the power of self-definition, the right to authority (Oguibe 1999: 20). 

So it is individual agency that is of paramount importance to Oguibe, the right of African artists to self define and have a discursive role in international contemporary art, rather than simply be “welcomed” or ‘included’ in it. He wants them to be able to negotiate, without interventions and mandates, their positions between ‘local’ and ‘global’. Oguibe demonstrates this view in one of his essays on Anatsui’s broken pot series from the late 1970s (Oguibe 1998). He cracks open the fictive Africa/West binary generated in most current discussions of Anatsui’s work and navigates us through the complexities of his immigrant past. Contrary to the conventional notion that one has an international experience only when one travels to the West, Anatsui already lives abroad within Africa, being a Ghanaian living in a specific culture in Nigeria. Thus, we learn in Oguibe’s eloquent account how Anatsui’s awareness of the history of Ewe as a persecuted minority in Ghana, combined with his knowledge of Igbo proverbs and cosmology and his proximity to the creative endeavors of contemporary Igbo artists in the wake of the Biafran war, informs his ceramic projects. This shows that Oguibe is not essentially opposed to biography as a methodological tool, insofar as it is relevant. At the same time, he pays equal attention to examining this production in the light of postwar Western art, often assigning to Anatsui a complementary, even opposing, role vis-à-vis Western artists. It is this attention to Anatsui’s contemporaneity that enables us to squarely challenge the view that his works from the pre-bottle-top days are “uninspired knockoffs.”

Even though the task of making a case for the discursive role of contemporary non-Western artists in the international scene is indeed a challenging one, the current conditions also provide the most opportune moment for such an effort. Interrogations of the state of contemporary art by such commentators as Nicolas Bourriaud, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Ekwui Enwezor, and Terry Smith open up this space. Despite minor divergences in their approaches, these writers seem to be on board with regard to several issues.

First of all, there is the recognition that what some quarters of the art establishment see as the crisis of contemporary art is actually only a crisis of a certain bias with regard to what constitutes ‘the contemporary’. “The reality is that contemporary art”, notes Okeke-Agulu: 

…specifically the one that emerged from various postwar practices and trends in the West—is past its age of innocence. In fact, it is only that contemporary art, as well as the theories and critical perspectives marshaled in its support, that are in crisis, being as it were unable to find the language to contemplate or articulate the consequence of the arrival of other kinds of contemporary art and artists at the table (Okeke-Agulu 2009: 44).   

In other words, the tradition of thinking about creative values and strategies as emanating solely from the Western urban centers is all but obsolete. This is because, as Terry Smith characterizes the current world picture, various contending forces, which he names “antinomies”–such as globalization, inequity between peoples, and dissemination and consumption of information—intensely clash, overlap, and interact in numerous other ways, making any claim about the homogeneity of contemporary art vacuous (Smith 2009: 48-9). Even covert faith in singularity or uniformity, with lip service to difference (as evident in much of the critique of Anatsui’s current work), is untenable. As Okeke-Agulu claims in another context:

…faced with the heterogeneity of contemporary art, continuing attempts to make sense of the chaos simply by homogenizing the troubling difference, or forcing it into narrative order based on the evolution of form over time, are doomed to fail (Okeke-Agulu 2013: 452).

Although partly overlapping with Smith’s observation, Okeke-Agulu’s argument is more focused on two forces that he believes are primarily responsible for shaping “the global scope of contemporary art”: globalization as a means of disseminating “Western economic and political models, as well as cultural and knowledge systems,” and the “subaltern subjectivities” that it “motivated” (Okeke-Agulu 2009: 45).

As an alternative to the singular mode of thinking that mythologizes the local/global polarity and feeds the politics of inclusion that I have addressed, these writers propose a multifarious approach to contemporary art. “The concept of ‘the contemporary’,” notes Terry Smith, “far from being singular and simple, a neutral substitute for ‘modern,’ signifies multiple ways of being with, in, and out of time, separately and at once, with others and without them” (Smith 2009: 47-8). Okwui Enwezor echoes this notion of multiplicity. “We need to provincialize modernism,” he proposes, following Dipesh Chakrabarty’s groundbreaking challenge to the construction of master narratives of history. Furthermore, he addresses the problem of approaching time that inevitably shows up in any consideration of multiplicity and fragmentation in historical studies:

That is, to spatialize it as a series of local modernisms rather than a big universal modernism. If there is no one lineage of modernism or, for that matter, of contemporary art, then to fully grasp its qualities of historical reflection requires a heterotemporal understanding (Enwezor 2009: 36).[ix]

The term “heterotemporal” implies a rejection of the periodic developments in the Western art world as an emulative model with which other regions are simply expected to ‘catch up,’ or to fail to do so. Instead, it approaches the temporal changes in a specific culture along the subject’s own timeline. Bourriaud coins the term “heterochrony” to convey the same idea (Bourriaud 2009: 3). Adoption of this methodological strategy, I argue, would guard against the habit of drawing blind parallels that plagues the reviews of Anatsui’s bottle-top sculptures in the popular press. Bourriaud proactively coins the title “altermodernism” to signify this radically pluralistic global approach to contemporary art. “The term ‘altermodern,”, he explains: 

…has its roots in the idea of ‘othrness’….and suggests a multitude of possiblities, of alternatives to a single route. The geopolitical word, ‘aterglobalisation’ defines the plurality of local oppositions to the economic standardisation imposed by globalisation, i.e. the struggle for diversity (Bourraid 2009: 2).  

He further insists that “altermodern has no desire to substitute for postmodern relativism a new universalism, rather a networked ‘archipelago’ form of modernity” (Bourraiud 2009: 10). While Bourriaud’s colleagues may not as yet share his level of enthusiasm for naming the movement, their views do resonate with his proposition that modernism occupies multiple locations, a notion which would help dismantle the essentialized image of the ‘local.’ Okeke-Agulu, for instance, suggests an approach to difference that seems to concur with Bourraiud’s ‘archipelago’ idea. “The globalization of contemporary art and art history,” he remarks:

…ought not simply conduce to a universal approach to the study of art; rather it must draw primarily –though not necessarily exclusively—from local intellectual traditions, and speak to each other from those locations (Okeke-Agulu 2012: 454).

Enwezor prefers the term “off-center” to Bourriaud’s “off-shore” for its broader connotations, signifying the multiplicity of locales. He also points out that, unlike the postmodernist notion of decentered spaces, where the center tends to relocate, “off-center” (as well as “off-shore”) “is structured by the simultaneous existence of multiple centers,”  and “allows the emergence of multiplicity, the breakdown of cultural or locational hierarchies, the absence of a singular locus” (Enwezor 2009: 38).

As for the question of multiculturalism, Bourraid’s and Okeke-Agulu’s positions seem to align, since both see the problematization of the local/global binary as one of the crucial tasks. A “ multiculturalist version of cultural diversity must be called into question,” says Bourriaud, “not in favour of a ‘universalism’ of principles or a new modernist Esperanto, but within the framework of a new modern movement based on heterochrony, a common interpretation, and freedom to explore” (Bourraiud 2009: 9).

Okeke-Ahulu also sounds optimistic about the role of multiculturalism, albeit in a revised form, in the future of an art-historical approach to global contemporary art: 

Haunted as it is by the specter of its own obsolescence, the revitalization of art history will require recovery of the essence of multiculturalism; the recognition of varieties of cultural (and artistic) experiences and histories without the hierarchical assumptions of post-Enlightenment European knowledge systems. A multicultural approach would strengthen rather than flatten out difference; it would also serve as a bulwark against neo-imperial tendencies of globalization (Okeke-Agulu 2012: 454).  

If seemingly confusing and complicated to handle, there is no question that the current era is one of transitions on multiple levels. There is no option but to treat ‘the contemporary’ today as a global phenomenon. Approaches to it are inevitably changing on the philosophical front, leaving the impact of that change on interpretative methodologies, and by extension, on a whole range of value systems concerning art. “Critical judgments that look so right”, wrote the New York Times critic Holland Cotter a decade ago in the context of contemporary African and South Asian art, “So unassailable today, may well be discarded. An artist whom no newspaper critic in 2004 knew about, or bothered to write about, may turn out to be the crucial one, the artist who shapes the future-future” (Cotter 2004: 87). While some of Cotter’s predictions have materialized, it still requires asking hitherto unasked questions, revising strategies, and circumventing dead-ends.  For instance, while engaging with difference without hierarchies is indispensible for the effective multiculturalism that Okeke-Agulu proposes above, it is worth noting that the influence of “post-Enlightenment European knowledge systems” reaches far beyond the intellectual milieu and into economics and politics in sustaining “hierarchical assumptions”. Terry Smith’s “antinomies”, operating in today’s aggressively market-driven culture, hardly offer any possibility of extinction of hierarchies and inequalities in the contemporary art scene. In other words, since non-Western artists have to inevitably bear the burden of the socio-economic and political disadvantages of their regions of origin when stepping into the ‘global’ arena of contemporary art that is still largely funded and controlled by Western agencies, it would be naïve to expect the politics of inclusion to become obsolete in foreseeable future. What that leaves us, then, is the obligation to relentlessly critique and expose that politics. While heterotemporality seems a viable art-historical tool in the study of contemporaneity, the notion of “parallel” histories, as Kobena Mercer notes, is misleading, since “parallel lines never intersect”. Instead, Mercer suggests, “it is precisely the mutual entanglement of western and non-western practices” –the intersections of the various temporalities– that must be meticulously investigated to “enhance our understanding in incremental steps” (Mercer 2008: 8). This is the only way the discursive roles of El Anatsui, his contemporaries and his successors can be asserted, but it demands continuous and dexterous maneuvering in the space between ‘local’ and ‘global’. The tasks facing the student of contemporary art therefore are rigorous indeed. 



[i] The show and its accompanying catalogue are both titled El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa. The show is curated and the catalog edited by Lisa Bonder.

[ii] For the documentary, see Vogel, Susan, Fold, Crumple, Crush, 2011.

[iii] The adverse response to his review of the show Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles at PS1 in late 2012 is a recent instance. See:   

[iv] Expression of curator Gary Tinterow, quoted in Alexi Worth, “El Anatsui”, New York Times Style Magazine, February 19, 2009.

[v] Susan Vogel’s review, quoted in Harney, Elizabeth, “A Nomad’s Revolutionary Beauty”, Nka, 28, Spring, 2011: 115.

[vi] The exchange in Artforum in late 1984 and early 1985 was later published in an edited volume. See: McEvilley, Thomas & William Rubin, “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief”. In Ferguson, Russell et al eds. Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Culture. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, c1990.

[vii] Synopsis of the exhibition “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” at Akron Art Museum, 6/17/2012-10/7/2012:

[viii] This dilemma over identity polarities and the various forms of negotiations between notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ have engaged African artists and culture critics for decades. Ima Ebong, for instance, examines this issue in her informative essay on the post-Negritude movement of Laboratoire Agit-Art in Dakar in the 1980s. See: Ima Ebong, “Negrtitude: Between Mask and Flag: Senegalese Cultural Ideology and the ‘École de Dakar’”. In Vogel, Susan ed. Africa Explores: 20th-Century African Art. New York & Munich: The Center for African Art & Prestel, 1991: 198-209.

[ix] For Enwezor’s source, see: Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000.


Bourriaud, Nicolas, “Altermodernism”. In Nicolas Bourriaud ed., Tate Triennial, London: Tate
Publishing, 2009: 1-14.

Barndenburg, John, “Art Review: Objects from environment offer inspiration for artist El
Anatsui”, NewsOK, September 27, 2009.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference.
Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Cook, Greg, “El Anatsui Shows Why He Is One of the Best”, The Phoenix, April 12, 2011.

Cotter, Holland, “First Word”, African Arts, 37(2), summer 2004, pp. 1, 4, 6, 86-7.

Crary, Jonathan, “Critical Reflections”, Artforum, 32(6), February 1994: 58-9, 103.

Danto, Arthur, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Ebong, Ima, “Negrtitude: Between Mask and Flag: Senegalese Cultural Ideology and the ‘École de Dakar’”. In Susan Vogel ed. Africa Explores: 20th-Century African Art. New York & Munich: The Center for African Art & Prestel, 1991: 198-209.

Enwezor, Okwui, “Cartographies of Uneven Exchange: The Fluidity of Sculptural Form:

El Anatsui in Conversation with Okwui Enwezor”. Nka, 28, Spring, 2011: 98.

————-, Response to “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’”, October, 130, fall 2009: 33-9.

Groys, Boris, “Critical Reflections”. In Boris Groys, Art Power. Cambidge, Mass. & London: The MIT Press, 2008: 111-18.

Harney, Elizabeth, “A Nomad’s Revolutionary Beauty”, Nka, 28, Spring, 2011: 115-28.

Johnson, Ken, “Art in Review”. New York Times, January 18, 2008.

Kawaguchi, Yukiya, “A Fateful Journey: A Curator’s Perspective”, Nka, 28, spring 2011: 106-12.

Krauss, Rosalind, “The “Rock”: William Kentridge’s Drawing for Projection”. October, 92, spring 2000: 3-35.

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——-, “El Anatsui Transcended Geography to Find His Place in Art”,, June 26, 2012 (a).

McEvilley, Thomas & William Rubin, “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief”. In Ferguson, Russell, William Lander, Marcia Tucker, Karen Fiss eds. Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Culture. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990: 339-405.

Mercer, Kobena ed., Exiles, Diasporas, and Strangers. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008.

Nicholas, Vanessa, “El Anatsui: Reshaping the Everyday”, Canadian Art, October 27, 2010.

Oguibe, Olu, “Art, Identity, Boundaries: Postmodernism and Contemporary African Art”. In Olu Oguibe & Okwui Enwezor eds. Reading the contemporary : African art from theory to the marketplace. London: Institute of International Visual Arts; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999: 17-29.

——— “El Anatsui: Beyond Death and Nothingness”, African Arts, 21(1), winter 1998: 48-55, 96.

Okeke-Agulu, Chika, “Globalization, Art History, and the Specter of Difference”. In Dubadze, Alexander & Ssuan Hudson eds. Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012: 447-56.

———–“Mark-Making and El Anatsui’s Reinvention of Sculpture”. In Lisa Binder ed. El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa. New York: Museum for African Art, 2010: 33-50.  

———— Response to “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’”, October, 130, fall 2009: 44-5.

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Rizvi, Fazal, “Looking Back and Looking Forward: Policies of Multiculturalism and the Arts in Australia”. In Papastergiadis, Nikos ed. Complex Entanglements: Art, Globalisation and Cultural Difference. Lonodn, Sydney, Chicago: Rivers Oram Press, 2003: 229-38.

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[1] The show and its accompanying catalogue are both titled El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa. The show is curated and the catalog edited by Lisa Bonder.

[2] For the documentary, see Vogel, Susan, Fold, Crumple, Crush, 2011.

[3] The adverse response to his review of the show Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles at PS1 in late 2012 is a recent instance. See:   

[4] Expression of curator Gary Tinterow, quoted in Alexi Worth, “El Anatsui”, New York Times Style Magazine, February 19, 2009.

[5] Susan Vogel’s review, quoted in Harney, Elizabeth, “A Nomad’s Revolutionary Beauty”, Nka, 28, Spring, 2011: 115.

[6] The exchange in Artforum in late 1984 and early 1985 was later published in an edited volume. See: McEvilley, Thomas & William Rubin, “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief”. In Ferguson, Russell et al eds. Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Culture. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, c1990.

[7] Synopsis of the exhibition “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” at Akron Art Museum, 6/17/2012-10/7/2012:

[8] This dilemma over identity polarities and the various forms of negotiations between notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ have engaged African artists and culture critics for decades. Ima Ebong, for instance, examines this issue in her informative essay on the post-Negritude movement of Laboratoire Agit-Art in Dakar in the 1980s. See: Ima Ebong, “Negrtitude: Between Mask and Flag: Senegalese Cultural Ideology and the ‘École de Dakar’”. In Vogel, Susan ed. Africa Explores: 20th-Century African Art. New York & Munich: The Center for African Art & Prestel, 1991: 198-209.

[9] For Enwezor’s source, see: Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000

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