Out of Africa

El Anatsui takes metal trash and uses it to tell varied stories

West African artist El Anatsui gathers up the trash he finds near his home in Nigeria and stitches it into monumental art.

His giant pieces don't look anything like conventional sculpture, though. The glittering works billow against the walls of the University of Arizona Museum of Art like so many lengths of fabric. Folding and dipping like cotton unloosed from its bolt, the works conjure up traditional African patterned cloth.

Their resplendent colors--gold, red, green, black--mimic those found in Africa's woven kente cloth and printed adinkra. So do the designs. Intricate rows of small vertical stripes coalesce into bold horizontals; tiny circles radiate out into big shapes. And though Anatsui laboriously sews his little components together, he's not working with cloth. It comes as a shock to realize that the undulating art in his GAWU show is made entirely of metal.

The artist recycles aluminum labels from tossed-out liquor bottles, old bottle caps, tin lids from evaporated milk cans, metal printing plates. Even his threads are metallic: lengths of copper wire. And all of these trash-picked materials--manufactured, used, pockmarked, discarded--tell a story.

"Art grows out of each particular situation, and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up," Anatsui once told a writer. (The quote is published in a catalog essay.)

And what post-colonial Africa tosses back at him is the trash that mars its landscape, much of it manufactured elsewhere. The museum's exhibition notes explain that impoverished African countries don't have the wherewithal to formally recycle this stuff. Much of it stagnates in piles until enterprising scavengers find something else to do with it. Women, for instance, pound the ubiquitous milk tins until they're flat, punch holes in them and use them to grate gari flour from cassava, a starchy West African food staple.

Anatsui has found his own use for the junk, converting it into art that's beautiful and brainy. He's not unlike contemporary artists in the West in deploying nonart materials in his work. But he goes beyond most Western artists by arranging this industrial-era junk into age-old patterns. Fusing old and new, he brilliantly comments on the chaos colonialism wrought on Africa, while at the same time paying homage to the strengths of Africa's traditional cultures.

"Versatility," 2006, is an enormous piece floating against one wall like a gorgeous golden drape. It stretches maybe 13 feet across, and rises perhaps 12 feet high, but it would be much longer if its cascading billows were stretched out taut. The tiny stripes, in solid gold and red, are stitched row on row to resemble a beautiful kente cloth. But this garment--as majestic as a king's cloak--is made of the colorful aluminum labels from lowly alcohol bottles.

Anatsui notes that European colonizers brought alcohol to Africa as a trade item, from the earliest days of contact. Scholars believe rum and other spirits helped lubricate the slave trade. Alluding to this tragic history, "Versatility" rages against colonialism, but it does not spare contemporary homegrown corruption. One alcohol brand prominently deployed, Ecomog, the artist tells us, is named for the Nigerian army that intervened in a 1990 civil war in Liberia.

Still, the work celebrates survival. Though the metal pieces in this patchwork are pockmarked, bruised by their own history, they conjure up the adaptable people who have endured what the artist calls history's "twists and turns."

An art professor for many years in Nigeria, Anatsui was born in 1944 in nearby Ghana. His work is acclaimed both in and out of Africa, especially in Europe; just last year, he was selected to show at the competitive Venice Biennale. GAWU is a traveling show making the rounds of U.S. universities. Organized by a Welsh gallery, the exhibit was brought to UAMA by curator Lisa Fischman, who has shown a flair for bringing the work of contemporary international artists to the museum.

GAWU comes from the Ewe words for "metal" and "fashioned cloak." Says Anatsui, the "work encapsulates the medium, process and the format of the works."

The kinetic works conjure up more than kingly cloaks. Their rippling surfaces sometimes suggest African dancers, and their three-dimensional contours can evoke traditional sculpture. The mournful "Adinkra Sasa," 2003, for instance, a mostly black work crossed by regular gold bands, evoke a carved head in profile.

Not all the works mimic cloth. "Wastepaper Basket," 2003, colored in the gray and white of newsprint, looks just like what its title suggests. The giant trash can is made up of discarded metal printing plates, once used to publish everything from commercial ads to homegrown fliers. Some of these notices were the homemade obituaries typical of Nigeria, which families hang up around the neighborhood to announce a death. The faint photo images of their loved ones are still faintly etched onto the plate.

The artist has crinkled the metal up by heating it, presumably so that it assumes the shape of paper trash. But frozen in metal, the plates become a permanent memorial, delivering as well a healthy critique of death, disease and underdevelopment.

The dramatic "Peak Project," 1999, is different again. It's a series of some 100 twisting cones set up on the floor, each one made up of wired-together milk-tin lids. Round, pointy and disintegrating, the cones take on a vaguely human dimension, like so many Oz wicked witches melting back into the earth. A program note tells us that the milk that comes out of these cans has to be imported; it's yet another indictment of the legacy of colonialism, in which natural riches were removed to enrich the colonizers, leaving Africa impoverished.

"Crumbling Wall" is an architectural piece, a metal patchwork of homemade gari graters bolted together into a freestanding wall. Each square grater--flattened out from a food tin--has been punctured with nails. Women wield these sharp and dangerous tools through long hours of tedium, as they grate cassava into flour. One can imagine the wounds they sustain as they work, and the blood that sometimes stains the food.

Colored in mournful gray and rust, "Crumbling Wall" is a "monumental dirge," in the apt words of African critic Sylvester Ogbechie. Like the people who made its components, it's sturdy and resisting, tragic and enduring.

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