Blanton shows retrospective of El Anatsui’s works

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Akua’s Surviving Children is a 1996 floor installation by Anatsui utilizing metal and driftwood which has been carved with a chainsaw. (Photo courtesy of The October Gallery)

Opening Sunday, the Blanton Museum of Art’s latest exhibition “When I Last Wrote to You about Africa” will showcase a major retrospective of internationally renowned contemporary artist, El Anatsui. The traveling exhibition, organized by the Museum for African Art in New York City, spans four decades of the artist’s works drawn from public and private collections worldwide.

The Museum for African Art’s curator of contemporary art, Lisa Binder, selected 60 pieces for the exhibition that she said best represent Anatsui’s body of work and demonstrate primary themes utilized by the artist: language, communication and history. “As this is a retrospective, it was important to include objects from all phases of his career that convey the amazing depth and variety of his practice,” Binder said.

The Ghanaian-born artist currently works and lives in Nigeria. He has made his career extracting the context from discarded materials and transforming them into striking, cohesive works of art that touch on local, global and personal histories from his west African culture.

El Anatsui has been recognized internationally as one of the most innovative and compelling artists of his generation. His work is collected by institutions spanning the globe from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art in New York to the British Museum in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

“When I Last Wrote to You about Africa” is the largest collection of El Anatsui’s work to be shown in the United States, and the Blanton is the only southwest venue to host the exhibition. The show consists of drawings, paintings, sculptural floor and wall installations and wall hangings of recycled materials which the artist refers to as tapestries, said Kathleen Brady Stimpert, Blanton director of public relations.

“There really is a good variety, but obviously the star pieces in the exhibition will be the wall hangings,” Stimpert said. “All of the works are equally beautiful, but the wall hangings are what Anatsui is best known for.”

The dynamic show ensures that all ages will be able to relate to the art in some way. “I think school-age children will be particularly enamored with the different interplay with light and the very tactile quality of the work,” Stimpert said. The tapestries are made up of thousands of bottle caps and other recycled materials that are essentially stitched together. “We certainly can’t allow people to touch the work — but the work makes you want to reach out and touch it.”

The tapestries in particular are incredibly labor intensive. Sewing together such large quantities of bottle caps is meticulous, time-consuming work. “There are also psychological aspects that the artist incorporates,” Stimpert said. “The artist touches on the context of recycled materials and how the life history of objects play a role in African society.”

The artist brings together seemingly common bottle tops, driftwood and other common items in such a way that they take on a sense of monumentality that taps into a sense of individuality as well as community pride, Binder said. “El Anatsui’s work draws viewers in, making us feel connected to the world that surrounds us,” Binder said. “There is a comfort in the beauty, but also in the humble nature of his materials.”

Stimpert said the work is awe inspiring because Anatsui utilizes common, recyclable objects and manages to transform them into something entirely different and cohesive. “Mostly, I think the works are just beautiful, and I think people are going to be impressed with the sheer luminosity and scale,” he said. “They’re just breathtaking in the way that they’re presented.”

Printed on Friday, September 23, 2011 as: "Blanton exhibit focuses on works by African artist."