Published on May 28th, 2015 | by Rosalina0
El Anatsui: A Glimpse of Africa
If you have yet to experience the visionary beauty, hidden materials and messages, and pull of the monumental sculpture of the internationally renowned African sculptor El Anatsui, you must see this work and experience its lavish majesty, born and constructed from found materials. While the artist’s father and brothers were master weavers of traditional Kente cloth, El Anatsui studied art in a conventional European school, but returned fully to an African sensibility reflecting not only visual culture but also socio-political concerns. Repeatedly, the Kente theme would reappear in El Anatsui’s large-scale patterned conceptual works that are best described as sculptural mosaics. These are magnificent poems of an often ignored or marginalized land of culture, made from debris, an allegory for the transience of human life in so many places in Africa.
The world of El Anatsui is immersive wherever installed, hanging from a ceiling, fixed to a wall, or as a series of sculptures at the center of a room, even on a building outdoors, or an expansive exhibition hall, or in an intimate setting such as a small gallery. You stand awash in patterned tableaux, metal fragments undulating like a sea of memory, of African lives, a commentary of capitalism, waste, and reuse, of poverty, and identity. The works can take different shapes, and be installed in various and sometimes myriad ways. The pieces of scrap metal brought together to form cartography of texture, include tins, rusty metal implements, printing plates and other materials found in Nsukka. These miscellanies are of considerable symbolic power, they tell the story of the unheard and often invisible.
Born in Ghana, El Anatsui lives and works in Nigeria and serves as a Professor of Sculpture, Fine and Applied Arts Department, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. This remarkable artist has been producing and exhibiting for over 30 years. In addition to a substantial and storied exhibition history, a large-scale work entitled Broken Bridge II, was commissioned by High Line Art, New York City in 2012. This site-specific work of pressed tin and mirrors, worked as an enormous tapestry reflecting the environment around it. Works like Earth’s Skin, 2008, combine color, metallic texture, and sense of fluidity in fabric like installation. Peak, 2010 is made from bottle caps, and is as a royal robe made of gold medallions, it is dynamic undulation like snakeskin, movable and moving. This is reuse beyond simple green thinking. Less sumptuous but archaeologically fascinating are works such as Wastepaper Bag, 2000 made of bent aluminum and discarded paper, including obituary papers, alluding to the problem of waste in countries without recycling resources, and an allegory for the disposability of human life in Africa, so often faced with disenfranchisement, disease, poverty and famine. Crumbling Wall, 2003 uses old metal pieces used for grating cassava flour for gari, a dietary staple of West Africa. The intense labor that goes into this food production, often using flattened rough sided cans, reflects the extremes of haves and have-nots, and has been seen as a metaphor for political corruption. Versatility, 2006 is a metallic tableaux with patterning like the Kente cloth of the Asante and Ewe people of Ghana and Togo and the motifs from Adinkra, a symbolic vocabulary used on textiles, art, and decorative work. These complex systems of iconography include colours for certain events, and communicate social means, conduct, religion, and aesthetic values. The work is made from the flattened metal pieces of alcohol bottles, often seen scourge brought by colonialism
Gravity and Grace, 2010 is like an aerial photo, but with glimmer and drapery folds, its uneven jagged outline is like a beautiful abstraction. El Anatsui has been the subject of numerous shows including the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2012; the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2013; the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, Nigeria, 2014. Selected permanent collections include The British Museum, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, UAE; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York; The National Gallery of Contemporary Art, Lagos, Nigeria; The National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.
To know and to see El Anatsui is to see Africa, maybe for the first time, in its wholeness, a vision of African arts and visual vocabulary, of craft and artisan tradition, inflected by the socio-political realities of life in a continent once in the stranglehold of colonialism.
Installation View, Palazzo Fortuny, Venezia, Italy (2007)
Rosa JH Berland, New York, October 2014