Wide Angle

El Anatsui, a Sculptor Who Starts From Scrap

By Barbara Pollack
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 23, 2008

Recycling may be the eco-friendly option in the United States. But in Africa, where resources are much more scarce, recycling is a way of life and no scrap of material goes to waste. The art of El Anatsui, currently on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, demonstrates the creativity at the heart of African resourcefulness. With art made out of evaporated-milk cans, cassava graters and aluminum seals from the tops of liquor bottles, he has created work that has won worldwide acclaim for its power and beauty.

"A work of art reflects its origins but at the same time it should be able to reach out to people," says Anatsui, in Washington for the installation of his show. The artist, 64, was born in Ghana before its independence in 1957, but since 1975 he has lived in Nsukka, Nigeria, where he is a professor of sculpture.

His art reflects various traditions of those two countries, such as West African kente cloth and reliquary carvings, yet his work incorporates the massive scale that is a hallmark of contemporary installation art. For the past 30 years, Anatsui has been known within Africa as one of the continent's most influential contemporary sculptors. That reputation has grown to encompass international fame and an extensive exhibition schedule throughout the world.

"El Anatsui: Gawu" was originally organized by the Oriel Mostyn Gallery in Wales in 2003. It toured Europe and the United States for five years before arriving at the Smithsonian this month. It is a slim survey of the artist's work since 1999, with only eight works tracing his development since he has gained recognition in international art circles. The title of the exhibition combines two words -- "ga," meaning metal, and "wu," meaning cloak -- from Anatsui's native Ewe language. It aptly describes his iconic wall reliefs, which look like medieval chain mail or jeweled robes fit for a king.

Actually, these monumental wall hangings are sculptures, not tapestries, and many are made from thousands of strips of aluminum taken from the seals used on liquor bottles. With the help of 20 assistants, Anatsui flattens the seals and folds them into strips that are then woven together with copper wire. All of the colors come from the labels themselves, and on closer inspection the names of the brands are legible. The process is laborious and it takes almost two months to finish one work. The finished artworks are roughly 30 feet long and 20 feet high.

He began using the material quite by chance in 1999.

"The first bag of bottle caps I found thrown away in the bush," Anatsui recalls. "I went back to the place and asked people where I could find more." He discovered that the local distillery collected the seals from used liquor bottles before recycling and refilling the containers. Local merchants bought the discarded seals to smelt into metal to make huge cooking vessels for local funeral rituals. Anatsui became an unlikely competitor, purchasing huge bags of these aluminum castoffs as the basic material for his intricate constructions.

The complexity of Anatsui's undertaking becomes clear standing before the vast wall relief titled "Adinkra Sasa," from 2003. This is the darkest work in the exhibition, with hundreds of black labels woven into vast swaths. It hangs on the wall like an ominous curtain with undulating folds emphasizing the artwork's three-dimensionality. Adinkra is a type of printed cloth traditionally used in funerals. But up close, the names of the liquor brands -- Dark Sailor, Liquor Headmaster and Black Gold -- reflect a grim period in African history. Anatsui consciously pulled together all these elements -- traditional weaving, minimalist sculpture and references to the slave trade -- when he made this somber work of art.

"When I work with this medium, I have in mind that I am touching or playing around with that time in history," Anatsui says, referring to the time when sailing ships brought liquor to Africa and took slaves across the Atlantic. "Maybe the people who made the drinks chose their names for different reasons, but for me they ring of that episode."

Another major work in the exhibition is "Crumbling Wall," a 13-foot-tall, 18-foot-wide barrier made entirely from rusting perforated plates that were used to grate cassava, a staple of the African diet. "My concept of a wall is something that not only hides but reveals things," explains Anatsui. "Your eyes can't see behind it, but your imagination projects and your curiosity is aroused." The wall is not quite opaque; it is possible to see movement and shadows through its porous surfaces. Yet it feels as durable as the wall of an ancient tomb, a battered remnant from an archaeological dig. Anatsui got his materials, more than 300 graters, by visiting shops where the plates are recycled and replaced, demonstrating once again his talent for creative reuse.

Anatsui's works can be awe-inspiring when set up in spacious galleries suited to their scale. In an effort to include as many works as possible in the limited space of the gallery devoted to contemporary art at the National Museum of African Art, many of the works seem cramped and overly confined. "Crumbling Wall" seems cramped in its gallery, and it is too near "Many Moons," a multicolored wall relief with a wide range of techniques and patterns. The earliest work in the exhibition, "Peak Project," an installation of three dozen three-foot-tall cones made up of the golden lids of evaporated-milk cans, can look like a mountain range but here is confined to a corner.

This raises the issue of whether an artist of Anatsui's stature should be confined to museums and galleries solely devoted to African art. All of this work is abstract and could fit into a wide range of contemporary art exhibitions. But, for Anatsui, it is important that his work reflects its African origins.

"I think one can discern different types of abstraction from place to place, from India, from America, from South America, or Africa," he says. "If it is a successful abstraction, it should be easy to reference its source."

On a practical level, he accommodates curators, whether they are specialists in contemporary or African art. Last summer, Anatsui garnered widespread acclaim when he draped two 30-foot expanses of shimmering gold between the massive columns of the Arsenale at the Venice Biennale. In February he installed a new work, "Between Heaven and Earth," in the African wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, concurrent with a solo show at New York's Jack Shainman Gallery. His work is owned by the British Museum and the Pompidou Center in addition to the Smithsonian.

"We lobbied hard and heavy to get this exhibition here at the National Museum of African Art," says Washington curator Christine Mullen Kreamer. "Many visitors to our museum don't know that Africa has lots of creative contemporary artists that are viewed very well both on the continent and off the continent."

In addition to the works in "Gawu," she added a 2006 Anatsui work, "Nukae-I," which greets visitors at the bottom of the stairs leading to the contemporary art gallery. Here the bottle caps are twisted into ribbons, then folded into tiny circles. They are woven into a diaphanous rectangle, like lace hanging on the wall. Pointing to "Nukae-I" as just one example of Anatsui's prodigious talent, Kreamer says, "Art should stop you in your tracks, and that's exactly what El's sculpture really does."

El Anatsui: Gawu is at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW, through Sept. 2. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission is free.

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