I first came across El Anatsui last year when I found he had represented Africa at the last Venice Biennale, and immediately loved his work, for the colours, texture, structure and messages. Below is his sculpture Crumbling Wall and the text is copied from the explanation and descriptions at his exhibition at the Fowler Gallery:
The pieces in ‘El Anatsui: Gawu’ make use of large quantities of discarded everyday materials, such as metal liquor bottle wrappers and tops and flattened food tins, stitched together and transformed to create new works of stunning originality. These huge, undulating metallic tapestries also recall the Ghanaian tradition of weaving and assembling kente cloth. Explains Anatsui, “Art grows out of each particular situation and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up.”
In each place they are installed, Anatsui’s works take on subtly different forms, as the pieces are draped or situated anew. Included in this exhibition are several examples of his monumental textile-like wall pieces, including two new works. Also on display are two installations: Crumbling Wall, 2000, a massive sculpture comprised of stacked rusted cassava graters, and Peak Project, 1999, a series of free-standing, abstract sculptures made of tin can tops connected with copper wire.
Beyond the powerful visual impact of the works, Anatsui’s sculptures open myriad possibilities for interpretation. Referencing diverse relationships of trade, materiality, tradition, and modernity between West Africa, Europe, and the Americas, Anatsui draws our attention to the life histories of the materials that surround him. Bottles of liquor, for example, were the units of currency preferred by European traders seeking to acquire slaves and ivory on the West African coast. Liquor and rum (a by-product of the Caribbean sugar plantations for which Africa had supplied the labor) were exchanged at great advantage to the European traders. Anatsui’s work gently alerts us to these histories, interlacing their material evidence and metaphors like elements within a cloth.