El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa
In 2008, the Denver Art Museum commissioned El Anatsui to create Rain Has No Father?, a metal sculpture tapestry created from found liquor bottle tops and copper wire. The artwork debuted in 2010 as part of Embrace! a site-specific exhibition that celebrated the unique (and controversial) architecture of the Daniel Libeskind designed Hamilton Building. The work is on view in the African art galleries, adjacent to the where the recent retrospective El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa was on view from September 9, 2012 – January 6, 2013.
Organized by the Museum for African Art in New York (MfAA), it was the first retrospective of the African artist El Anatsui’s work.
“El Anatsui has been writing to us about Africa for a very long time,” said exhibition curator Lisa Binder of the MfAA. “For over four decades he has created drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures and installations that convey histories both personal and universal. Each work has its own story to tell, though, when seen together, they relate to each other like words in a sentence.”
Born in Ghana in 1944, Anatsui earned a bachelor’s and post-graduate degree from the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. He taught at the University of Nigeria from 1975 to 2011. In 2007, Anatsui created a stir at the Venice Biennial by suspending a large metal sculpture made from liquor bottle tops and metal foil bottle neck collars on the outside of a building. The work subverted the idea of metal as a stiff and rigid medium and instead turned it into a pliable and almost sensuous form. While the bottle caps used to create these works are recycled from a West African distillery, the initial use of this material came when he found a bag of these caps outside of his studio. Anatsui weaves them together with copper wire and he intentionally wants the viewer to read the labels and names of the liquor.
“I don’t see what I do as recycling: I transform the caps into something else,” Anatsui says.
The bottle caps and labels are transformed into works that have been associated with kente cloth. In 1993 he did a series of wooden sculptures called Old Cloth where the blackened areas signified the wear and age of an important old piece of cloth. Those blackened areas also appear in the black labels and metal caps.
The retrospective features ceramic works from the 1970s, when Anatsui began to manipulate broken ceramic fragments alluding to ancient Nok terracotts sculptures and West African myths. He also made sculptures that merged signs and symbols from various cultures and languages created by chopping, carving, burning and etching wood.
A series of found driftwood sculptures and wooden sculptures carved with a power saw leaving jagged surfaces are highlighted by Adinsibuli Stood Tall, a wooden tree woman, regal yet scarred, just like Africa.
The exhibit also featured, drawings, and aquatint and dry point etchings on paper and two large installations, Peak Project created from the tin lids of Peak brank condensed milk wired together and formed into peaks (at the DAM exhibition they seemed almost hoodoo like) and Open(ing) Market, hundred of small wooden boxes commissioned by African workers with traditional product labels glued inside.
From ideograms to failed communication, the works of El Anatsui tell a story of Africa from migration and colonialism to consumption and mythology. As the artist himself has said: “Rather than recounting history, my art is telling about what history has provoked.”