El Anatsui Gli (Wall)

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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, andWastepaper 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. 
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