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Layers of Meaning in Object Art

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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008

Sculpture sure ain't what it used to be.

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The days when statuary was a set, rigid thing with but a single, clear meaning -- Heroism! Sorrow! Love! -- are gone. In its place? Work like the assemblages of junkyard debris in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's "The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas: Recent Sculpture," whose very title drives home the ambiguous, open-ended nature of much of the contemporary art form.

El Anatsui wouldn't have it any other way.

"Sculpture should not be fixed," says the Ghanaian-born artist, whose first U.S. solo exhibition arrived this month at the National Museum of African Art. Even the show's title, "Gawu" -- a word from the artist's native Ewe suggesting both "metal" and cloak" -- contradicts. Like "Iron Curtain," it calls to mind rigidity and flexibility.

Its most obvious allusion, of course, is to the fabriclike sheets the artist fashions from discarded bottle caps and aluminum neck bands that once graced liquor bottles, several examples of which are on view here. A commentary on alcohol abuse? Certainly. (Distilleries are plentiful near Nsukka, Nigeria, where Anatsui has lived and worked for 28 years. This leads both to a ready source of raw material for the artist, who "sews" the little bits of flattened metal together with copper wire, as well as an opportunity to witness the magnitude of his adoptive country's booze consumption.)

El Anatsui's messages range from the environmental to the political to the economic. So scraps of metal can represent the growing trash problem, what the artist calls the "balkanization" of Africa by Europe, and the unequal economic relationship between the continent and the West, where the distilleries originated.

Such pungent mutability is precisely what draws Anatsui to his chosen medium. That and the ability to fold up like a bedsheet the work for which he is best known. Check out "Blue Moon," a new work the artist says he brought over with him on the plane. Could there be a subtle statement about globalization going on there? Something about the porousness of national borders? Why not? "I regard myself as someone who has provided a set of data," says Anatsui. How the audience reads that data is of little concern to him.

Or maybe not.

Reading comes into play much more explicitly in "Wastepaper Bag," a towering 3-D form fashioned from crumpled metal plates the artist fished out of a printer's trash. As with all of Anatsui's work, there are many possible interpretations, including, most superficially, the difficulties of waste management in places such as Nigeria that have poor recycling capabilities.

But there's another, even more powerful point (and it's one that neatly ties in to the fact that Anatsui's "tapestries" can resemble the Adinkra mourning cloths of Ghana). Look closely. You might miss it if you don't lean in to read the text on some of the aluminum sheets, several of which were once used for funeral announcements. Make a note of the birth and death dates, Anatsui urges. These are people who died at age 45, maybe 50.

That, the artist says, points the way to the central metaphor of "Wastepaper Bag." It isn't one of overflowing landfills, though he is happy if viewers take at least that much away from his sad and strangely beautiful found-object art. Rather, it's a message in which the wording of at least one title refers not to garbage, but to what he calls the "wasted" lives of far too many fellow Africans.

El Anatsui: Gawu Through Sept. 7 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian) Contact:202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285); http://www.nmafa.si.edu. Hours: Open daily 10 to 5:30. Admission: Free.

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