The Austin Chronicle

Mapping Time

The art of El Anatsui charts the geography of Africa from then to now

Reviewed by Robert Faires, December 9, 2011, Arts

Nothing is new in El Anatsui's world. The wood is weathered and scored with deep lines as if it's been a longtime scratching post for leopards and lions. The metal is rusted, with dents pockmarking its surface. Paint has faded or been chipped away. Pottery is cracked or broken. Cloth is frayed. Everything wears the marks of its time in the world.

And it's in these materials, distressed and damaged as they are, that the artist finds Africa, connects to its traditions and cultures dating back ages; its ancient languages, now lost to most who now inhabit its lands; and its contact with Europe, which forever changed the course of the continent and its people. Anatsui sees the history evident in the tarnished lid of a can of milk or a scarred block of wood as able to speak to the history of his homelands – not a little of which is tarnished and scarred itself. So in crafting works of art from substances that are worn, he can carry viewers into Africa's past, to recall what was, even as he reveals what is. Walking through "El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa" at the Blanton Museum of Art, you can feel a mighty push and pull between then and now, yesterday and today, as it has played out in Anatsui's art for almost 40 years. In the five dozen works included in this career retrospective from New York's Museum for African Art, the tide of time is ever tugging at the continent's shores, and we can survey its effects.

In pieces such as Leopard's Paw-prints and Other Stories and the work from which the exhibit takes its name, pictographs carved on wood – squiggly snakes, stick-figure humans, circles and other geometric shapes – represent languages of Africa's past, a link to a native heritage centuries old. But chunks of the wood have been gouged out in long slashes, fracturing the text – suggesting to us that over the years, old ways have been broken and may all too easily be lost to time. The message is echoed in similar marks on a series of wooden platters modeled after trays for displaying fruits and vegetables in the markets of the artist's native Ghana and in ceramic sculptures made to resemble old clay pots that are split or missing pieces. How can a vessel hold anything when part of it is gone?

In the large installation Open(ing) Market, hundreds of small tin boxes with opened lids cover the floor in one corner of the gallery. All are facing the same direction, and the outside of each has been painted black with little red curved markings so that when seen from behind, they appear as a field of almost identical handmade containers, the work of one village's craftsmen. Seen from the front, however, the boxes are a riot of color and worldwide commerce as the interior of each is plastered with a different garish logo or ad for a modern multinational corporation's product. In the two sides, you can see a tension between the local market of yesterday and the global market of today. What was lost and gained in that passage?

As you'd expect from a retrospective, "El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa" tracks time's effect on the artist as well. Though the work isn't arranged chronologically here, it's easy enough to tease out phases in the artist's career: his work with the Ghanaian trays in the early Seventies, leading into the broken pottery series later in the decade; a period of two-dimensional art – ink drawings, prints, paintings – with abstracted and patterned images during the Eighties; and more wood-based art throughout the Nineties, both the language-driven hanging pieces and freestanding sculptures, some suggesting human figures with forked limbs for legs or blocks for heads. Then, toward the end of the century, Anatsui's focus on natural materials gave way to a concentration on man-made objects and a serious expansion of scale. With works such as Open(ing) Market or Peak Project – the installation in which he linked together hundreds of milk-can lids into small peaks and fashioned a miniature mountain range – Anatsui began using parts of commercial products to create sculptures that filled large spaces. The bulk of these – and the most impressive, eye-catching works in the exhibition – are his richly colored and textured wall hangings made from the labels and tops of liquor bottles stitched together with copper wire.

Ranging in size from small quilts to immense tapestries, these pieces join hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the shiny metal cast-offs into vast, shimmering fields of color: glistening golds and silvers, blazing crimsons and oranges, sky-bright blues, and oily blacks. They're visually sumptuous and made all the more so by Anatsui's artful, highly sophisticated arrangement of those hues – a swath of black rimmed in gold, stripes of red and blue dripping down a field of silver, a patch of sunshine yellow infiltrating a block of blue. The strip patterns may be inspired by the woven kente cloth of Ghana, but they also recall abstract paintings of the mid-20th century – his hangings wouldn't look out of place nestled next to a Hans Hoffmann in the America/Americas gallery upstairs.

Indeed, the wall hangings are so visually striking that you may not focus on their materials as much as with the artist's earlier work, but of course, as in all of Anatsui's creations, the materials and their condition speak to history and Africa. The distilled liquor introduced there by Europeans became a major commodity for trade but also caused great damage to a native culture in much the same way that it did with the original inhabitants of the Americas. The fact that the labels and lids that Anatsui uses come from Nigerian liquor companies speaks to – and raises questions about – African development in the wake of European influence. But even if you consider the product from which the materials for the art are taken to be a scourge on the continent, the artworks themselves are beautiful. In addition to calling attention to Africa's past and how it's changed, Anatsui is reclaiming part of it for the continent's future, transforming the worn, the disposable, the discarded, and the junked into gleaming splendors.

Splendors, let us note, that the artist allows to be hung differently in every venue where they're displayed. Curators and museum staff determine where the work will be gathered and how their folds will fall. The bumps and ridges stretching across these colored blocks and strips may put you in mind of maps, the colorful topographical kind that may have caught your fancy as a child. And in a sense, that's just what they are. El Anatsui is a cartographer of time, charting the ways in which it works its ways on his homeland for all of us to see.

"El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa" is on view through Jan. 22, 2012, at the Blanton Museum of Art, MLK & Congress. Public tours of the exhibition are scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 15, 12:30pm; Sunday, Dec. 18, 3pm; Thursday, Dec. 22, 12:30pm; Tuesday, Dec. 27, 12:30pm; Thursday, Dec. 29, 12:30pm; Friday, Dec. 30, 12:30pm; and Saturday, Dec. 31, 2pm. For more information, call 471-7324 or visit

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