El Anatsui, who was born in Ghana but largely works and teaches in Nigeria, began his career in the 1980s and 1990s using organic, natural materials such as wood and clay. In recent years, however, El Anatsui has transitioned to media that is entirely synthetic and manmade. By regenerating and repurposing the bottle caps, he imbues these discarded materials with a new meaning and aesthetic. Though these objects have no intrinsic value, their social value strikes right at the heart of post-Colonial Africa. The beer caps are a subtle allusion to the colonialists who introduced alcohol and modern, Westernized culture into Africa during Colonization. With a profound sense of humanity, El Anatsui creates Blema and the other works from this period perhaps with the intention to bear witness to the current state of his post-Colonial native country.
Blema’s shimmering gold surface has unique patterns and shapes that morph and emerge before the spectator’s eye. El Anatsui modeled the designs of this series off of Kente cloth, a traditional African textile with vibrant patterns and often with Adinkra designs. Adinkra symbols, originating in Ghana, are decorative and symbolic forms that can adorn many fabrics, architecture or clothing in West African society. These culturally resonant designs delicately emerge in patterns of gold, red and black in Blema, creating an underlying lexicon and iconography that strongly evokes the African tradition and aesthetic. There exists a dichotomy in the overall visual impact of this work – we simultaneously see a gilded Baroque tapestry or mosaic, evoking the excess and luxury in European royal history, yet we also see an intricate assemblage of found objects and scraps of contemporary African life. In Blema, El Anatsui elegantly juxtaposes these two aesthetics – and these two cultures – into one majestic work that leaves the viewer wondering, what is real and what is the illusion?
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