Talk to El Anatsui about the thousands of bottlecaps used in his artwork, and he’s less concerned with the obvious problem — yes, these were garbage headed for landfills that now hang on museum walls — than the issue they represent for his community. They’re all from one recycling center near his studio in Nigeria. And they’re all alcohol bottle tops. The town isn’t that big. It’s a sign, he says, of the issue alcohol has become in Africa.
But look at his artwork alone and it’s a banner for the promise Africa holds. His pieces are the perfect visual metaphor.
“I’ve been an artist searching my environment for material to work with, and I want it to be material that relates to the people, not something that is distant from them,” Anatsui said in materials provided by the Denver Art Museum. The bottle caps are a symbol of the triangular trade route that moved Africans to America to become slaves, sugar they harvested in American plantations to Europe to be made into rum, and rum to Africa to be consumed.
A piece of his, “Rain has no father?” sparked such interest when it arrived at the museum that Nancy Blomberg, curator of native arts and chief curator for the Denver Art Museum, pushed for a retrospective of his work. On Sept. 9, it opened.
“El Anatsui is a master of material,” Blomberg said in the press release accompanying the exhibit’s opening. “This is the first time viewers will get the chance to experience the breadth of his life’s work and discover the story it tells.”
In the museum plaque describing “Rain has no father?” Anatsui says, “About six years ago I found a big bag of liquor bottle tops apparently thrown away. … I kept the bottle caps in the studio for several months until the idea eventually came to me [to flatten and stitch the caps together]. In effect the process was subverting the stereotype of metal as a stiff, rigid medium and rather showing it as a soft, pliable, almost sensuous material capable of attaining immense dimensions and being adapted to specific spaces.”
In each location his work appears, the way it is hung is decided by the people who hang it. The Denver Art Museum’s staff created undulating curtains that seem to have picked up a breeze. Warm, bright lights illuminate the shining folds. How the curtain-like sculptures are hung and how pieces like “Open(ing) Market,” an arrangement of hundreds of tin boxes made from repurposed tin advertisements, are placed in the space is up to the people at the site.
That task, Anatsui says, helps draw out the artist in other people.
of his wood sculptures are made of strips of wood that are meant to be
re-ordered in each hanging — although numbers on the back mark the
artist’s original order. During a tour of the exhibit with Lisa Binder,
assistant curator of the Museum for African Art in New York and curator
of El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, she points to the piece she’s hung higher than the rest, and the rotation from the original order.
“His work is meant to move, it’s meant to have the ability to transform and take on new shape at every installation and venue,” Binder says. “This building, this space, this gallery really lets his work adjust and breathe and take on the volume of the space in a way I haven’t seen before.”
Binder says that of all the places she’s seen his work exhibited — and she’s known it in destinations as divergent as Nigeria and New York City — the Denver Art Museum seems best suited to allowing it to adjust, transform and make the most of the space.
Anatsui studied art at the University of Science and Technology in Ghana in the ’60s, an education that focused its attention on Western art. The study left him hungry for the signs and symbols of Africa, he says.
the end of the course some of us develop a hunger for, just like in the
Western [movies] you see people go to museums to study the works of
past masters and all these things, some of us developed a hunger to know
something about what our own art heritage was, and went to the cultural
center, which happened to be in the same town as the university, and
came about a body of signs and kind of writing symbols which had
meaning,” he says. It was clear that the artists were grappling with the
abstract concepts that confront humans anywhere — concepts of the soul,
the omnipotence of God.
“It was very revelatory to me because at the time I came upon this we had just dealt with the Renaissance in Europe and you know the emphasis in the Renaissance was on verisimilitude, that’s truthfulness to what the eyes see, and here was I faced with a people who were doing something with the brain in mind — these were artists which had the brain in mind and not only the eyes,” Anatsui says.
The exhibit, a 40-year retrospective, shows Anatsui rotating through various materials as they became available — wood, ceramic, metal, found objects, paints and ink.
“When I left art school one of the decisions that I unconsciously made was that I should be able to find media in my own environment to work with and not continue to work with the traditional media,” he says.
As he moved around the world for things like a residency abroad or to take a teaching position at a university in Nigeria, his materials changed.
He painted, when paint and canvas was to be had. He worked with wood, employing a chainsaw when he was at a residency in Massachusetts. In Ghana, at the beginning of his career, he picked up the wooden trays African women used to display their goods in the market and burned designs into them with a fire iron used to brand cattle.
made “Devotees” in 1987 by using drill bits to put eyes and gaping
mouths into discarded yam pounders and clustering a dozen of them
together. It’s an effective piece in making a statement about the
slack-jawed enthusiasm of certain religious practitioners. In 1996,
while at a residency in the Netherlands, he collected pieces of
driftwood and fixed them to one another to make long, lean bodies topped
with blockish heads. “Akua’s Surviving Children” is every bit as
haunting and lost as “Devotees” is stinging.
“Rather than recounting history,” a quote from Anatsui painted on the gallery wall reads, “my art is telling about what history has provoked.”
A series of pottery contemplates the re-use of broken pots; his misshapen vessels are meant to encourage contemplation of the way a broken pot often gets pulverized into pieces that can be reworked into clay to make new pots.
"Stressed World" | Photo by Elizabeth Miller
It’s easy to let his work with bottle caps overshadow everything else. They’re flattened and arranged to create patterns of colors that invoke more traditional African art. Brilliant lights shine through the holes in “Rain has no father?” “Stressed World,” a recent piece, is a cloud of red and yellow around a mesh of plastic from the necks of bottles, the attachment for all those caps. It’s mostly see-through, and stretches up a tall, narrow window in the back corner of the gallery. The light is transcendent. The bottle caps look like anything but junk.
“I don’t see what I do as recycling; I transform the caps into something else,” another Anatsui quote on the wall reads. “Art grows out of each particular situation, and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up.”