Anatsui, a native of Ghana, has been a practicing artist since the 1960s. Artistically inclined from a young age, Anatsui grew up in a family of poets, musicians, and weavers. Raised and formally educated at a mission school, Anatsui’s upbringing exposed him to both African and Western traditions and languages. After studying fine arts at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Anatsui began teaching, leading him to move to Nigeria, where he still lives and works, in 1975. Throughout his career, Anatsui has gravitated towards materials that are at hand, working variously with ceramic, wood, stone, and metal. While many of his earlier works employ graphic symbols borrowed from traditional Asante fabrics, or represent a figural form, Anatsui’s works have always privileged process over direct representation. Whether through his broken and reconstituted clay pots, or his textural chainsaw sculptures, Anatsui’s practice is a constantly evolving relationship between the artist and his medium.
The story of his movement into metal work is often repeated—the spark that set the blaze of Anatsui’s remarkable late career. In 1998, Anatsui found a bag of discarded bottle tops in some bushes outside the city of Nsukka, where the artist lives. These aluminum pieces, remnants of locally manufactured and consumed liquors, caught Anatsui’s interest, both for their material potential and the story that they evoke about the connections between Africa and Europe. While Anatsui had been experimenting with recycled metals for some time, the bottle caps were a revelation. As the bottle tops sat in his studio for some months, Anatsui experimented, finally arriving at a labor-intensive process that would result in these monumentally important sculptural works like Paths to the Okro Farm. Fabricated in sections on the floor of his Nigerian studio, Anatsui’s metal works are made of thousands of these miniscule metal scraps, sewn together with copper thread into massive constructions. The bits of metal meld together into remarkable, gleaming sheaths of fabric, which Anatsui refers to as “sheets.” While the finished sculptures vary in size, they can grow to monumental proportions, reaching as large as 5 stories high by eight stories wide.
Anatsui’s astounding compositions in metal and wire recall both the visual densities and shimmering hues of Gustav Klimt’s golden phase compositions. Klimt’s tightly-spaced shapes created through layers of gold and paint are paralleled in Anatsui’s abutting metal fragments; both artists’ approaches create complex, seductive, and multi-dimensional surfaces, evoking the opulence of tapestries. Looking towards Nick Cave’s multimedia, wearable Soundsuits as a contemporary counterpoint, one finds an analogous deployment of unconventional found materials. In Cave’s costume-inspired sculptures, the artist reuses material from discarded afghans, repurposed globes, and portions of furniture to buttons, sequins, wooden dowels, and other found fragments. Like Anatsui does with his recycled metal bits, Cave employs non-traditional materials in transformative ways.
The practices of Anatsui, Klimt, and Cave all reference tapestry and needlework in important ways. This link to the world and methodologies of craft belies a rapt attention to the relationship between media and meaning. While Anatsui’s sheets may evoke images of traditional African fabrics like those woven by his family in Ghana, there are other histories woven through the metal cloths as well. The bottle tops that Anatsui transforms into works of art carry with them a narrative about trade, colonization, and interdependence. Introduced as a trade commodity, European alcohol became a tool in the transatlantic slave trade that would reshape human history. Now distilled and consumed in Africa, the bottle tops that Anatsui employs often bear names (like Kente cloth patterns also do) of historical events, places, and figures that form Africa’s modern history. Anatsui mirrors these sorts of histories through the titling of his own pieces, as well, linking these abstract compositions solidly back to Africa.
Disassembled, fragmented, and slowly refashioned into these remarkable sculptures, Anatsui’s metal bits have defined a new space within the contemporary art landscape. In an introduction to her book El Anatsui: Art and Life, art historian Susan Mullin Vogel asks, “How did a sixty-year-old artist living in an obscure town in Nigeria invent an art form capable of challenging classifications of “painting,” “sculpture,” and “abstraction” that are cornerstones of the discipline of art history?” From the moment that his Fresh and Fading Memories enveloped the façade of the Palazzo Fortuny in its glimmering sheath at the 2007 Venice Biennale, Anatsui’s metal works have garnered well-deserved international acclaim. His visionary creations extend the possibilities of contemporary abstraction, fusing together intricate histories through modest materials in truly innovative ways.
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