El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh NC

Text by Sarah Richter

El Anatsui is widely recognised as one of Africa’s foremost contemporary artists. Most well known for his signature bottle cap sculptures, his artistic practice is punctuated by artworks that utilise a variety of mediums and explore themes of both personal and wider significance. Born in Ghana but actively working in Nigeria, El is inspired by his surroundings. His use of found materials is not a comment on Western recycling, but on giving discarded objects a new life.

El allows for a malleability and impermanence to penetrate his work. With no strict or particular rules for the exhibitions arrangement, he allows his art to mould itself to the space by inhabiting every inch of room. The exhibition includes 61 pieces of his work starting with some of his earliest wood works and spans his entire artistic oeuvre. Organized by the Museum of African Art in New York City, curator Lisa Binder installed the exhibition thematically not chronologically. Arranged so that the pieces create a conversation with each other and the visitor is able to participate in a dialogue with the work. Not focusing on the Western obsession with dates, numbers and historical lineage, this exhibition is organized to illustrate the connective themes in El’s work. Traditional elements such as the Adinkra symbol, colours, line, movement and issues are a continuous theme throughout his work.

Walking quickly through the galleries provides the instantaneous impression that El’s work deals with the intricacies of society and everyday life. Drawing from his own experience, his work examines the continued implications of interactions between the West and Africa. El examines this relationship by exploring the slave trade as well as the way consumerism has permeated Africa’s vast cultural traditions. By embracing tradition, El allows his work to situate contemporary habits, society and politics within the context of traditional practices. Our rampant consumerism has aided in eroding our connection with the past and El’s artwork tries to renegotiate the place the past holds in the present.

Each element of his work successful functions as a single element but also contributes to creating a cohesive unity with the work as a whole; such as his piece Akua’s Surviving Children. Comprised of found driftwood while El was in residence in Denmark, he thought that the wood possessed qualities of displacement similar to experiences shared by slaves. Arranged to evoke the shape of marching people, the image evokes the journey of slaves from their homeland to a life of forced servitude. This piece takes a modern perspective of the relationship between the West and Africa that were founded in 16th and 17th centuries.

One of his most striking pieces was titled Opening Market. A collection of small and large boxes of the most vibrant colours; reds, greens, yellows and blues are situated on the floor. Facing the same direction with lids open, the piece is meant to represent a typical market day. Each box is lined with the colourful ads and discarded wrappers of objects sold at the market and popular in society. Representing how the continued tradition of Ghanaian markets has retained it’s tradition but also become imbued with the habits of contemporary consumerism. The winding path between the boxes invites the viewer to traverse through this miniature market creation to explore their treasures. What unknown treasures have yet to be uncovered?

This entire exhibition of El’s work is a visual feast of bright colours, highlighted by the seemingly unbelievable transformation of ordinary objects and the spirit that each work is imbued with. El has become a force in the global art world, with work that uses, highlights and illustrates the importance of individual aspects of society. Drawing upon his own experiences and unique traditions, his work focuses on the importance of how society, individual and as a whole are represented by ordinary objects. Each work in the exhibit functions cohesively as whole but each element has the ability to function individually. In both Akua’s Surviving Children and Opening Market have singularly elements that work together, proving to the testament that we work well alone but also as a unified entity. Despite our differences in both a historical and contemporary context, we work better together than alone.

El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa, 18/03/2012 – 29/07/2012, East Building, Meymandi Exhibition Gallery, North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh, NC 27607-6494. www.ncartmuseum.org

El Anatsui
Open(ing) Market (2004)
Tin, Paper, Wood, and Paint, Dimensions variable (1,767 pieces)
Photo courtesy October Gallery