Gli (Wall), 2010
Photo: Nash Baker © nashbaker.com

El Anatsui
Gli (Wall)
28 January - 14 March 2010

A native of Ghana and resident of Nigeria since 1975, El Anatsui has experimented throughout the years with a variety of media including wood, ceramics, and paint. Although Anatsui was a respected artist and teacher in Africa for more than thirty years, he was little known internationally until ten years ago when he began creating dazzling suspended sculptures made from liquor bottle tops and metal foil collars from the bottle necks. Driving in the countryside of southern Nigeria, Anatsui found a big bag of liquor bottle tops and collars apparently thrown away in the bush. Intrigued by simple and overlooked materials, or as he says, “whatever the environment throws up,” Anatsui took the bag back to his studio where it sat untouched for months as he continued to work on a series of abstract wooden sculptures. Eventually, he opened the bag and began experimenting with the contents - cutting, folding, and bending the metal bottle tops and collars into flat swatches of color and texture that he joined together with copper wire, forming massive shimmering curtains that subvert the stereotype of metal as a stiff, rigid medium. While New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman called them, “great chain-mail tapestries,” the works’ glittering metallic surfaces and patterns also recall kente cloth, the emblematic fabric of Ghana. Anatsui’s father and brothers wove the kente of the Ewe people, and he speculates about the unconscious influence of family and cultural history upon him and this body of work.

Though it is the more recent works for which Anatsui has become best known, the cumulative strength of his art lies in the vocabulary of sculptural media and forms drawn from his environment. Gawu, a major traveling exhibition of Anatsui’s work culminating at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC in 2009, revealed a variety of his approaches in works such as Crumbling Wall, 2000, a towering 12 x 17 x 2 foot structure made of pierced and rusted steel graters once used to prepare gari, a West African staple made from cassava flour, and Wastepaper Bag, 2003, an oversized, freestanding shopping bag made from discarded printing plates used for newspaper obituary pages. Seen throughout the exhibition was Anatsui’s reliance on indigenous materials and his awareness of what they can reveal.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

El Anatsui was born in Anyako, Ghana in 1944, and holds degrees in sculpture and art education from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. A professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka from 1975 to 2009, his work has been exhibited extensively in international solo and group exhibitions, including the 1990 and 2007 Venice Biennales.

Anatsui was the subject of an extensive profile in The New York Times Magazine in Spring 2009. His work is in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the British Museum, and numerous other museums throughout the world. A major retrospective of Anatsui’s work, When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, will be the inaugural exhibition of the Museum for African Art’s new building on Museum Mile, opening in Manhattan in fall 2010. The exhibition will survey thirty years of Anatsui’s work as a sculptor tightly bound to the materials of his home. El Anatsui lives and works in Nsukka, Nigeria.

El Anatsui’s first site-specific work in the United States, Wrinkle of the Earth 2, 2007, was commissioned by Kinzelman Art Consulting for ConocoPhillips, Houston, Texas.