DC at Night

DC at Night

Sunday, March 24, 2013

El Anatsui: From Trash He Brings Treasure

El Anatsui inspects one of his creations
Where some simply see piles of waste, others see discarded trash that can be transformed into exquisite, emotion-provoking art. You can definitely put African artist El Anatsui in that latter category. But don't call him a recyclist. He will upbraid you by pointing out that when you recycle metal it stays metal and when you recycle paper it remains paper. But when Anatsui, or El as he prefers to be called, creates his works from bottle caps and other such materials, he is, in his words, "taking something regarded as humble and transferring and uplifting it into something  more ethereal."

Last weekend, as part of the DC Environmental Film Festival, the short documentary Fold, Crumple, Crush was shown at the Dillon S. Ripley Center. The film, directed by June Vogel, captures both Anatsui and his art as it follows the artist from a major exhibition in Venice back to Nigeria. After the viewing, Vogel talked about the artist, his extraordinary art, and her film.

In the film, Anatsui says he wants his art, much of which currently consists of colorful, huge, flowing metal curtains, to reflect life. ""Life is mystery and I want my art to reflect that mystery," Anatsui explains.

Vogel concurs that there are elements of the mysterious in Anbatsui's art. "He wants you to dream, to wonder, to question," she said.

Anatsui was born in Ghana, a country long known for its distinctive textiles, and many see the influence of that art in his works. In fact, Anatsui once used the vocabulary of textiles to describe what he was creating. Now he rejects such labels. "He says it was a mistake using those names. He's now interested in something much broader. He is making art for a modern Africa, a new Africa," Vogel explained.
El and his art
Vogel says her subject has led "a very solitary life" Yet he terms his creations "gregarious," a word that suggests he wants viewers to have a conversation both with and about his art. He himself says "I'm married to art and the objects are the children."

Anatsui creates his work in his studio in a small city in Nigeria, where he has helped create an enormous recycling market. At his studio, as many as 20 assistants shape aluminum bottle caps and other material  into  forms including rings, squares, and chains. There are more than 30 forms made, some created for color combinations and some for specific shapes. "He composes with the materials they make for him," Vogel said.
Anatsui lays pieces out on the floor, trying to fit a finished work to the vision he sees in his head. It may take 4 months or longer to complete a single project. If you want to see more about the process, click here.

Outside of Africa, his works are much sought after and command a high price. So you might assume he would be a major celebrity in the small city where he works and taught at the university for 30 years. But that is not the case, Vogel says. "I don't think most of the people there know what he is doing, even those right across the street," she said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The showing of  Fold, Crumple, Crush could be considered an early kickoff of the Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa exhibition which is coming to the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. That show, which will open on Earth Day, April 22, will showcase approximately 100 African artworks in 5 thematic sections -- the Material Earth, Power of the Earth, Imagining the Underground, Strategies of the Surface, and Art as Environmental Action. As you might expect, Anatsui's work will be part of the exhibition.

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