Sep 28, 2011

REVIEW | El Anatsui, When I last wrote you about Africa, Blanton Museum, Austin, Texas

Three Continents, El Anatsui, 2009

Going to the Blanton Museum of Art is always a treat.  The in-house collection covers a wide historical range and a visitor will see new things from the collection almost every time.  The galleries on the first floor are dedicated to temporary exhibits and the exhibit currently on display is devoted to “When I last wrote you about Africa”, the works of El Anatsui.  This exhibit is in conjunction with the Museumfor African Art in New York City.  The display provides a retrospective  of El Anatsui’s artwork over the last 30 years.



 El Anatsui, was a professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka from 1975 until 2010.  He has worked in many different media, ceramics, painting, drawing, and wood carving.  His artwork takes inspiration from African myth, West African history and personal experiences.

The work I am most familiar with, and most recognizable to most people, are his large scale metal works created from found materials.  I saw one of these metal wall hangings for the first time soon after the Blanton acquired one as a gift in 2009.  I remember seeing it mounted high on the wall in the atrium.  I was intrigued by the way the artwork appeared to ripple down and along the wall.  This earlier work by El Anatsui is currently on display in one of the upstairs contemporary arts galleries at the Blanton.

Fading Scroll ( detail), El Anatsui, 2007


These metal works are made from thousands of bottle caps from Nigerian liquor bottles.  The metal from these caps are transformed into huge shimmering, undulating works, that from a distance, appear to be woven cloth.  These bottle caps are cut apart and folded, then wired together with small pieces of copper wire to form the fabric of the artwork.  The colors change and flow depending the on how the caps from different colored brands of the liquor are arranged. The metal curtains hang in such a manner that it seems as if it were responding to an unseen breeze or draped in heavy folds that might conceal a mystery.  
Sacred Moon, El Anatsui, 2007


The exhibit contains several of these glittering metallic tapestries.  Even though they are all created out of the same humble material, they each have a different shape and effect. 
El Anatsui varies the texture of each one by folding the bottle caps into different shapes.  By cutting the tops out of the caps and flattening out the sides, he creates rectangular pieces that combine to create broad areas of color.  When he uses the rings that hold the caps onto the bottle, the effect is more of a lace-work style, allowing the space behind to show through.

The earlier works of El Anatsui were something I was less familiar with.  Looking at this exhibition, it was possible to see how themes of shape and collections of shapes were a constant part throughout his work. What I see in many of these pieces are the patterns of  that come together to form the artwork as a whole: many small symbols that make the texture in his wooden pieces, the intricate detail in his drawings and of course the fabric-like patterns created from the many small interconnected bottle caps that make-up his wonderful hanging metal pieces. 
 
The common thread running through this exhibit are the small details that collectively combine to create something that tells a bigger story.  Each small component of each of his artworks causes you to stop and look closely at what it is and then step back and take in the bigger picture of what all those small pieces come together to create.

I would hope that anyone who is involved in creating artworks of their own would take the time to view this exhibition.  This great retrospective of El Anatsui’s work is on display at the Blanton Museum of Art, located on the University of Texas at Austin campus.  The show will run through January 22, 2012.


- Michael Whisenhunt


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