Visual Art

A major show of Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui’s opulent sculptures folds and weaves scrap metals with ancient histories. By Patrick Hartigan.

El Anatsui: Five Decades

Drainpipe (in foreground) from El Anatsui: Five Decades.
Drainpipe (in foreground) from El Anatsui: Five Decades.
Credit: Zan Wimberley

In this story

One morning a few months ago, while drinking a cup of coffee, I awakened to the reason a close friend of mine always makes a certain sucking noise while sipping hot drinks. I had always put it down to the heat of the liquid but suddenly I saw things differently. I was drinking my coffee from a fairly thick-rimmed cup – a vessel that made the liquid more prone to escaping between the rim and my lower lip. What disturbed me most about these little mishaps was the way I was compelled to constantly lick the cup clean. That morning, after licking a spill, I instinctively sucked at the next sip, a measure that eliminated further spillage.

Suddenly I saw a system or habit in place that – when intersected by a mishap, a chance thought or event – produced an accompanying moment of lucidity and a new development to that system.

Systems in art develop in motley ways and are often precipitated by chance occurrences and encounters. In 1988 Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui found a garbage bag of bottle tops in Nsukka, Nigeria, where he has lived for the past 40 years. Since then, he has created an intricate system of flattening and weaving these bits of metal into works of unusual grandeur. Anatsui works with systems that could easily lead to dull and predictable outcomes. They succeed, in my mind, according to the artist’s sensitivity and openness to the particular, indeterminate and fluid qualities of their materiality. It’s unsurprising to learn that Anatsui once played the trumpet in a university jazz band: his works have the quality of musical improvisation, most significantly taking shape, being given rhythm and oxygen, during their moment of installation.

Awakened (2012), the first work to greet us in El Anatsui: Five Decades, his exhibition at Schwartz Carriageworks in Sydney until March 6, drapes to the floor with a wonderful elegance – both a sign of things to come and a cadence quite its own. Its incompleteness spills to the floor, a kimono in ecstasy. The exhibition is the first in a five-year program of public exhibitions supported by Anna Schwartz, whose husband publishes this paper.

Closely inspecting Awakened, one finds hundreds of small, carefully folded and twisted pieces of aluminium, tied together with copper wire. Words and graphics of different liquor brands – Flying Horse, Pilot, Squad 5, 007, Headmaster, Seaman’s – reveal the carefully tweaked choir of this exhalation.

Around the corner, Adinkra Sasa (2003), a large patchwork of predominantly black-painted metal, hangs equally impressively and tactfully, its bottom just hitting the floor. On first glance it has the topography of a giant chocolate wrapper. With a bit of distance, the surface ripples with the enthralling and ominous shimmer of crude oil, or still-glowing volcanic lava. The work in fact references Akan mourning cloth. Normally stamped with adinkra symbols, this metal cloth mourns other histories through its incorporation of a substance once at the centre of the transatlantic slave trade.

The terrain these pieces find themselves in is a favourable one. Anatsui’s works sit engagingly in the time-ravaged surroundings of this once industrial site, which has recently become a hub of artistic activity. The stratified layers of paint and burn marks on the walls, and the giant limbs of metallic infrastructure, seem the ideal setting in which to highlight a process of transforming scrap metal into opulent splendour. Anatsui and the exhibition’s curator, Beatrice Gralton, have done a fine job in letting these works speak to, rather than conceal, these unique gallery spaces. I found it worthwhile to take the lift up to a viewing platform from where one can take in the broader habitat.

Anatsui’s works are built on an apprehension of art history in both African and European traditions. In his art school training in Ghana, he was introduced largely to Western examples of art history; it was only after he left art school that he went looking for local art histories and traditions, spending time with musicians and visual artists in different regions. His works bring to mind both African textiles and objects, and Western art history, while humility and subtle sinisterness oxidise and complicate golden and seductive wall-hangings – think the lavish friezes of the Vienna Secession – such as Blema (2006) and Garden Wall (2011).

Thinking of the Western canon, I was also reminded of the work of American painter Philip Guston when encountering both a suite of drawings and a huddle of larger than life Waste Paper Bags (2004-10) made of scrap aluminium printing plates. As with most of the large works, the enjoyment of the bags takes place between views afar and very close. From further away these commanding though ambiguous forms almost disappear in the industrial surroundings; closer up, the kneaded and scrunched sheets of metal reveal newspaper pages, some containing sporting and political news, many containing obituaries.

Something about its play with scale by way of monumental and ancient-seeming forms arrested and massaged from fleeting and quotidian stuff, as well as the layering of moral and political agenda, brought the substance of Guston’s late painted allegories to my mind. The suite of drawings have a similar quality, their depicted forms at once tiny and brief, weighty and colossal.

Anatsui, when discussing the intersection of influences in this work, talks about the ocular emphasis in Western ideals of beauty. According to African traditions, beauty generally has a moral aspect and is associated with the inner character of a person, or an artist, rather than the outer body or design. There is no universal definition of beauty and perhaps no reliable version for any one culture, entangled as it always is in the eye of its beholder. In Nigeria, there is a proverb for this: if there is character, ugliness becomes beauty; if there is none, beauty becomes ugliness.

In the course of lives through which most of the world’s junk gets generated, the excessive management of ideas and technological divertissements might be seen to limit moments of awareness and discovery. Intuition, whether it be in art, mathematics or any walk of life, emanates from alertness and caution; art can be a form of consciousness, a way of being through which life, in all its joys and miseries, gets glimpsed and seized upon for its inherent riches. In Anatsui’s art, a dazzling craft involving materials and histories that might otherwise remain futile and ugly, the work brims with character and beauty.


1 . Arts Diary

THEATRE Romeo and Juliet

Sydney Opera House, until March 27

Canberra Theatre Centre, April 1-9

Fairfax Studio, Melbourne, April 14-May 1

VARIOUS Adelaide Festival of Arts

Various venues, Adelaide, February 26-March 14

BALLET Cinderella

Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, until February 24

VISUAL ART A Dirty Business: Devine, Styan and Tilley

Newcastle Art Gallery, until May 15

VISUAL ART Chen Qiulin: One Hundred Names

4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, until February 27

THEATRE Ladies in Black

Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until February 27

Last chance


Carriageworks, Sydney, until February 21

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 20, 2016 as "A kimono in ecstasy".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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