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Colorful Fridays: Spotlight on artist El Anatsui

March 12, 2010

Art grows out of each particular situation and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up –El Anatsui

For this week’s Colorful Friday series, I want to introduce you to an artist I first came across several years ago at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art. The Ghanaian artist, El Anatsui, works mostly with discarded items found in Nigeria. He picks up the tops of bottles of spirits, milk-tin tops, old printing plates and whatever else he can find around Nsukka to mold into large sculptures.

Some of my favorite pieces by El Anatsui are made from the liquor bottle caps he found and collected. He realized that the metal was pliable and he was able to flatten them out and piece them together with copper wire. The result resembles cloth, and seems to flow seamlessly. The designs also refer to the west African tradition of weaving kente cloth which is usually patterned with bold colors and designs.

Kente cloth is worn for sacred events usually social or religious in nature, and are associated with the Asante and Ewe people. Each design symbolizes a concept, and each color has its own meaning. Wikipedia has an interesting list of all the colors used in the designs and what each stands for. Here are some examples of kente cloth designs:

via flickr user okrahoma

via flickr user mtl2tky

And here are a few of El Anatsui’s pieces:

via flickr user c-monster

via flickr user See-ming Lee 李思明 SML

via flickr user c-monster

This shows a detail of the huge pieces – each piece of metal is flattened out, then linked with copper wire. It’s amazing to me how much work goes into each of these pieces! In an interview with Gerard Houghton, he says that completing half a square foot takes about a day . . . and that’s with assistance!

via flickr user dominick brady

via flickr user mark.larrimore

These photographs don’t even do the work justice in my opinion, the pieces are enormous and so vibrant with an incredible amount of texture.

In the exhibition catalogue for Gawu, El Anatsui states:

…the whole piece is talking about ‘consumption’, or could be seen as referencing it at least. Not consumption as something that is peculiar, in the sense that we are talking about the various landscapes that consumption can create in Nigeria, Ghana, etc. You can have huge piles of detritus from consumption, because you don’t have the technology to recycle and also because of weather. A lot of things which are made in Europe and America are sent over, arrive in certain kinds of packaging, for example fresh milk comes in tins. We have our own milk too, of course, but in addition there are huge imports of milk from outside, which is accessed by way of tins. Being that you don’t have the means to recycle there develop huge piles of milk tins, drink tops and all these things all over the places. So it’s an examination of consumption and the various landmarks it can generate in various parts of the world.

I love that his work references both his local landscape, the idea of consumption, the traditions of west Africa and kente cloth. What do you think of his work? Have you seen it in person?

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