The Full Force of Fragments
It was early June, and Berne’s Kunstmuseum had been open for three weeks since the shutdown had been lifted. To visit and experience art again was a special, albeit quiet joy. And a feast for the eyes – looking at the works by El Anatsui in “Triumphant Scale”. The exhibition first opened in Berne the day lockdown was announced in Switzerland, on 13th March 2020, and museums, too, were forced to close.
Fortunately for the Kunstmuseum and its visitors, the loans could be extended, and the exhibition will now run until 1st November 2020 before it moves on to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
“Triumphant Scale” is certainly an apt title, as some of Anatsui’s installations have truly overpowering dimensions. The largest, up to 20 metres long and 5 metres high, are a challenge even for the Kunstmuseum’s expansive, high-ceilinged rooms, as the Berne exhibition’s curator, Kathleen Bühler, notes. During the museum’s enforced closure, she recorded twelve in-depth commentaries on the exhibition and put them online for public viewing.
Viewed from a distance, the opulent works – draped and flowing across the walls of the exhibition rooms – are puzzling. Are they precious, oversized, glinting robes? But up close it becomes clear: here are centimetre-small metal pieces joined up to form large structures; fabrics, sewn together with copper wire. Small letters and words are (barely) discernible on the colourful mosaic-like pieces.
Most of the works, it transpires, consist of countless cut up and reshaped screw-tops from spirits bottles. With their edges flattened, the round lids bent into small squares or three-dimensional forms, they are joined up to make new structures – open shapes without clear delineations. The works invite the viewer to inspect them closely – but their abundant splendour can only be appreciated from a distance. They raise questions: Do the patterns and colours follow a certain logic? Can we really see continents, streets and lettering or are they in fact entirely abstract forms? What do the mosaics’ areas, lines, and colourful and three-dimensional textures mean?
Flowing forms and colours
Out of refuse – old bottle tops and tin cans – El Anatsui creates fine, magnificent compositions. This material, which is always available, has been his preferred medium since the late 90s. He believes artists should work with whatever their environment spits out. He does not see it as recycling because the materials are given new life when he uses them, and transformed: “They are now part of an artwork, and as such they have a higher status, a greater dimension,” he explains.
The filigree sculptures are entirely hand crafted – up to 40 people ‘weave’ the works in a large workshop in Nsukka, Nigeria, where El Anatsui lives and works. (To produce a piece one-and-a-half times the size of an A4 sheet of paper, one person needs a whole day). It’s an elaborate process, involving cutting, milling, folding, drilling, and sewing together thousands of metal pieces. “Red Block”, for instance, measuring approx. 5 x 5 metres, consists of some 15,000 individual components. The artist has continued to develop and perfect the techniques it requires to make a large variety of forms out of this consumer-waste metal. He composes, experimenting with several completed, small areas, spread out on the floor, rearranging them and photographing them, and then working on it all on a computer.
Sometimes ten people are needed to hang the heavy metal sculptures in their designated spaces in museums. Undulating folds are created by fixing the metal to the walls with nails. As the individual components are not static, the works are never finished, but allow for ever new arrangements. In this way, a new and unique composition is created every time a piece is exhibited. As the artist says about his work: “Art is a reflection of life, and like life itself, it is in constant flux”.
Yet El Anatsui’s works go beyond the language of forms. The discarded lids he uses are not only given a new form but also a new context. With the monochrome work “Red Block” mentioned above, he addresses the history of colonialism and slavery. The word “Castello” – a Nigerian brand of rum – can be read on every one of the pieces of red tin. The artist uses it as a reference to globalized consumerism and its link with the history of Africa. Early European merchants brought rum from the West Indies – out of sugar cane cut by African slaves – first to Europe, then to Africa. The red bottle tops, which are still made in Nigeria today, fuse the history of the three continents in one work.
“Erosion”, the artist’s first large-scale, free-standing wooden sculpture, was created during the 1992 World Climate Conference in Rio de Janeiro. For the three weeks of the conference, Anatsui decorated the three-metre-high wooden work with a plethora of details – adding colours and symbols from West African cultures, carving it and sawing into it, blackening it with a Bunsen burner. Then as the conference ended, he attacked it with a chainsaw, defacing it and leaving deep cuts, to demonstrate the damage erosion causes – severe destruction within seconds. He compares the straight lines of the chainsaw’s cuts with the colonial powers’ ruthless drawing of borders in Africa. Colonization radically upturned the political, social and cultural life of the African nations – as El Anatsui sees it, the erosion of cultures and languages.
Traditional fabrics and robes serve El Anatsui as a source of inspiration that he interprets anew: “I’m not interested in fabric as such. Rather, it’s the format or the form of fabric; the fact that it is free, that you can hang it on a wall, press it into a small ball, drape it on the floor, whatever.” “Man’s Cloth” (2001), his first metal fabric and a key work in his oeuvre, is one of the “Gawu” group of works – meaning ‘metal cape’ in his native language, Ewe. It marks a turning point in his works: metal from manioc graters, printing plates, tin cans and screw tops inspired him to create his large-scale installations.
His first works made of bottle tops were shown in the October Gallery in London in 2002, to great acclaim. In fact, since the early 2000s his work has garnered a lot of international attention, e.g. through his first major solo exhibition, which was shown from 2003 to 2008 in Europe and the U.S. Increasingly, he has also shown his work at art biennials and triennials, starting in Venice in 2007. Here, two of his works were shown in the Arsenale; another, made of metal tops, covered one side of the Palazzo Fortuny. Consequently, it is mainly these large-format metal fabrics that he has shown – and major museums have acquired, including the MoMA in New York. In 2015 he was awarded the Golden Lion of the 56th Venice Biennale for his 50 years’ work. And in 2019 his works were shown together with those of other artists in Ghana’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
El Anatsui’s works testify to a great spirit of experimentation and are the result of his intensive research into African culture as well as the properties of various materials and how to work with them.
Curator Kathleen Bühler reads a timeless message in El Anastui’s flowing, metal works: “Even when the way ahead has long since been paved, and we think we know where we’re heading, we can always find – as we do now – that everything can change and needs to be thought over again. It is an avowal of the universal, of that which connects us humans, no matter what continent we live on and what language we speak.”