The Story Behind the Work

"Crumbling Wall" by El Anatsui. (By Reed Hutchinson)
Friday, March 21, 2008

There is no better example of multiple meaning than El Anatsui's "Crumbling Wall," a richly evocative 2000 work made from scavenged sheets of rusted steel. Covered with thousands of tiny perforations, the metal was once used to manually grate cassava roots into a kind of farina that is a staple of the West African diet.

On one level, the pockmarked structure is a literal nod to the decline of traditional African architecture. Yet it also functions as a symbolic reminder of what the label text calls "the resilience of African traditions and peoples in the face of change."

There's a food association as well. According to the artist, working with a material used in the production of gari flour drives home the point that "eating is building," at least as far as the stomach is concerned. But these connections are all secondary to the sculpture's deeper meaning. Like everything else he does, "Crumbing Wall" is all about what you don't see.

Sure, it forms a barrier of sorts. Anatsui is the first to admit that you can't see what's on the other side. But the thing is covered with holes for a reason. After all, he notes, "a wall can only block the eye, but not the imagination."

-- Michael O'Sullivan

© 2008 The Washington Post Company