El Anatsui Exhibit: African Contemporary Art

May 19, 2012

Raleigh News & Observer

Don’t let the name fool you.

El Anatsui, the artist featured in the newest exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art, might not be a household name like Rembrandt or Rockwell – the museum’s most recent marquee presentations. But the art is no less astonishing.

Museum officials said promoting the El Anatsui exhibit has been challenging, with patrons assuming from the name that the artist is Japanese, or Spanish, or maybe both. Actually, El Anatsui is among the biggest names in contemporary African art, and the exhibit, “When I Last Wrote to You About Africa,” is a fascinating experience.

Chronicling more than four decades of his vast body of work, “Africa” features 61 pieces, including sketches, drawings, sculptures, carved woodwork, wall hangings, ceramics and large-scale floor installations. Many of the larger works incorporate found objects, like the gigantic wall sculptures that stitch together thousands of discarded liquor bottle tops.

For the viewer, the impression often depends on simple proximity. Up close, the gigantic wall hangings look like a mosaic of modern detritus – bottle tops, labels and scrap metal. Step back, though, and the piece becomes a warm and threadbare quilt.

This might be the most surprising element of the El Anatsui exhibit. Terms like abstract sculpture and found object art can suggest the sort of chilly, cerebral aesthetic that sometimes gives modern art a bad name. But El Anatsui’s creations are warm, approachable and disarmingly familiar.

There’s a good amount of intent behind that, said Linda Dougherty, N.C.M.A.’s curator of contemporary art.

“I think that’s really important to him,” Dougherty said. “He’s talked about the reason he uses found materials instead of ‘art’ materials, (and it) is because of its accessibility to people. These are things you are familiar with, and I think his works are accessible because of that.”

Well before the current exhibit, N.C.M.A. had commissioned the artist to create a wall sculpture for the opening of its West Building in 2010. The piece, “Lines That Link Humanity,” is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

About the artist

El Anatsui was born in Ghana in 1944, but spent most of his career in Nigeria, where he is now semi-retired. He trained at the College of Art, University of Science and Technology in central Ghana and has taught at the University of Nigeria since 1975.

Anatsui has explored various media in his career, from his early work in clay and wood sculptures to his more recent interest in large-scale installation art. Individual pieces often contain Ghanian ideograms – similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs – and evoke traditional African forms such as the woven kente cloth.

The result, Dougherty said, is a style that uses familiar modern materials to conjure older, more powerful forms and feelings.

“What interests me about his work in the idea of transformation,” Doughtery said. “He can take something that you wouldn’t ordinarily look twice at, and transform it into something spectacular. For me, that’s the real power of his work.”

Anatsui considers the naming of individual works a crucial part of the artistic process, and many of the pieces have mysterious, evocative titles: “Leopard Paw Prints and Other Stories,” “Wonder Masquerade,” “Akua’s Surviving Children.”

The artist also often incorporates materials that bring special meaning to a piece. One rather haunting installation, for instance, gathers dozens of abstract human figures carved from driftwood logs. The sculptures refer to historical Danish trade of African slaves, and the nails used were made at the same forge where guns for the slave trade were made.

Perhaps the exhibit’s most astonishing piece – and certainly its largest – “Opening Market” features hundreds of individually crafted tin boxes arranged on the floor of a large gallery room. Each box was handmade by African craftsmen and individually commissioned by the artist.

Museum collaboration

“Opening Market” is one of several installations that represent a kind of long-distance collaboration between artist and museum, Dougherty said. The materials for the work are shipped out to the exhibit site, and a general outline provided, but the individual arrangement of the boxes is up to the exhibitor.

“One of my favorite things that he’s said is that he wants to create sculptures that have the freedom to change,” Dougherty said. “With the tin boxes, he only requested that they all face in one direction with the lids open, and that it be organically sprawling, like a marketplace.”

Many museum workers took part in the set-up of the Anatsui pieces. “We just did it together, it was very fun,” she said. “Compared to most most installations where you just hang the painting on the wall, it was very interactive.”

Overall, the artist has a refreshingly non-precious approach to exhibiting his work. In one instance, a floor sculpture made of tin can lids and copper wiring had a few missing and damaged elements. El Anatsui simply mailed over some new parts, indicated the gauge for the copper wire, and said, “Fix it if it’s broken.”

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