The October Gallery is one of London’s unique and special art spaces. It has its own identity, not quite purified White Cube its arrangement of spaces and places (including a theatre, a kind of dining area as well as a leafy, open yard) folded away on a Holborn side-street invite the showing and contemplation of contemporary art but also seem to welcome you to sit and get more acquainted with its community.
You first became aware of the gallery when, during the 1990s, and having discovered that your writing was publishable, you decided to focus only on ‘Black and Asian artists in London’, who, at that time, were hard to locate and poorly supported. Then, INiVa (Institute of International Visual Arts) was operating from one office in Whitfield Street, Sonia Boyce and David A. Bailey were tending the AAVA (African & Asian Visual artists Archive) at the University of East London, ‘Gasworks’ was a rumbunctious collection of studios regularly enlivened by artists visiting from Africa, the Caribbean and Middle East, the ‘198 Gallery’ and ‘Brixton Art Gallery’ offered slim support to fledgling artists and, as you discovered more and more about this art world within the art world – its people, its places and its gradually forming history- you found it fragile, fragmented but unusually warm in its welcome to anyone who, like you, felt that they intuitively wanted to contribute.
The October Gallery has always been an important part of this special and different history of art in London and when you visit today it is to see the work of a Nigerian artist whose work you have previously admired and used repeatedly in teaching as one of his grandiose pieces greets every group or visitor to the British Museum’s ‘Africa’ department. El Anatsui weaves huge textiles from the detritus of alcohol use and abuse. As such he is a classic ‘Up-Cycler’ in tune with these untimely times when we fear our abuse of the world’s resources may threaten its very existence. There is then something solidly ethical and morally sound at the heart of his practice, and, when you look at it this work, it is all heart. It’s not an illusion or a disguised surface, not really juxtaposition, nor a carved, cast or painted process, but from back to front, from head to toe and through and through Anatsui has found a simple, singular and yet strangely powerful and profound practice. Crushed caps and neck-rings from beer and spirit bottles are collected in their tens of thousands by the artist and, once their corners are pierced each can be threaded together with equally resilient fine copper wire. On a small scale this would be a neat discovery but Anatsui has been ambitious with it from the outset and makes these modular constructions into enormous cloths or sheets, one of which covered the entire façade of a major museum. When hung for show they loom above the audience with a hieratic aura and yet have no particular form through which to transmit any particular meaning. Rather, their very malleability means that they are re-formed by every hanging and thus never the same work of art on any two occasions on which they are exhibited. It is, in fact, their very formlessness that awards them their slightly uncanny, awesome and unnerving atmosphere.
But this uncanny quality is not all there is to see, think about or feel when encountering Anatsui’s works. They are, after all, made up of shreds of commodities and the bottle caps and neck-rings come in a variety of seductively coloured metallic surfaces, many printed with logos, signatures and brands. When all of this is carefully combined and composed the results are also optically dazzling. The great, majestic robes drape down from the gallery walls sheening and gleaming as they fold and they flow. Some come to look like carefully ordered pixilations, adding a strangely Hi-Tec feel to textiles that otherwise seem to extend an ancient, non-modern and non-European tradition whereby art is not separated from life into museums and framed pictures but might simply be part of your clothing, the construction of your shelter, the vessel from which you drink or in which you store your foodstuff.
Then there is the more semiotic, socio-political and economic interpretation that you are inevitably led to by these works. After all, much of Africa remains in a precarious and conflicted state as a result of hundreds of years of unjustifiable exploitation and subjugation by those countries of Europe and the Northern hemisphere that used the labour and mineral resources of Africa to pave the way for their own voracious and acquisitive modernity. Therefore, despite all its other powers, charms and seductions, what we can’t avoid seeing in Anatsui’s work is alcohol in affordable excess, surely a destructive influence on the maintenance of any harmonious and effective society. Anatsui’s work might also lead us to consider the wrongs that alcohol –sometimes strategically deployed- has wrought on poor and subjugated communities the world over, including those of the Australian aborigine and Native American Indian as they too surrendered to the relentless force of colonialism.
Like many important artists, El Anatsui plays with, changes and contests established values. He turns an insidious form of rubbish (responsible for ‘rubbishing’ the lives of all those who, having failed to win the battle for a more constructive career succumb to alcoholism) into regalia, robes and gargantuan finery. The never-ending supplies of alcohol, carelessly but highly profitably proliferated by modern factories, are here transformed and translated by painstaking art into implications of an infinite, ancient, far-reaching power and wisdom that may yet surpass short-sighted modernity and its excessive consumerist cornucopia of instant gratification, just as it long predated and preceded the same.