El Anatsui: The Art of the Title

O you in that little bark
What is the relation of the painting to its title

The painting bears no relation to its title
The tiny boat bears

nameless people across
water that is infinitely dark
—from “Untitled” by Michael Palmer

Many discussions regarding the intersection of visual art and language tend to treat it as a relatively unique phenomena, focusing, for instance, on works that incorporate language as a visual element, or on poems that describe an artwork (ekphrasis). But there’s one place where word and image meet in almost every work of art: the title.


El Anatsui: Gli. Image source: http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/

Painter Helen Frankenthaler said that titling a painting is a “poetic job.” The simplest title can be a complicated linguistic gesture, inflecting the work and our relation to it. Titles do anything language can do: provide context, name content, identify genre, provoke, amuse, enlighten, bewilder, or mislead. Even the seemingly neutral approach of not naming one’s work is often motivated by extremes: the artist may believe either that titles limit meaning and viewers’ experience, or that titles add superfluous meaning and distract from the Thing Itself. In any case, an untitled work is haunted by language, by an implicit understanding of what words can and cannot do, should and should not do.

In the following video, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui discusses one of his titles/works, Gli:

Anatsui explains that in his language, Ewe, “gli” means “wall” or “story” or “disrupt.” And if we think about how it relates to English, the word become almost Joycean, indicating playfulness (glee), and hinting at words that suggest shiny and slippery qualities of Anatsui’s work: glisten, glitter, glide, etc.  


Detail of Gli 

I find it interesting that even though Anatsui states that he’s “working with the idea of non-fixity and something indeterminate,” he choses to title the work, rather than leave it untitled and wide open. And it could be argued that going titleless doesn’t so much encourage openness in viewers as it allows for uninformed indifference. But gli—the word, the title—primes the pump: it suggests that the viewer is entering a space of change and transformation, where a simple monosyllable resonates with multiple meanings and bottle caps form a monumental work of art.

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