The Ghanaian artist El Anatsui is best known for his transformative approach to materials, repurposing bottle tops, milk tins, wood, aluminium printing plates and tin boxes into sculptures, ceramics, tapestries, carvings and large-scale installations. Carriageworks’ survey traversed five decades of work that uses recycling as an aesthetic principle to navigate aspects of post-colonial African culture and politics – from trade histories tocorruption and consumption – and, with the inclusion of over 30 works, showcased the scope of the artist’s work beyond his familiar bottle-top tapestries.
Carriageworks has recently expanded to incorporate the space previously occupied by Anna Schwartz Gallery; Anatsui’s works took over the floor and walls of these two vast rooms. A large-scale installation, Tiled Flower Garden (2012) – created from red, yellow and black bottle tops, flattened, concertinaed and woven together – spread out across the floor of the main space. It undulates like a landscape or, perhaps more ominously, a textured skin shed by a vast snake-like animal. Opposite, the wall-mounted Adinkra Sasa (2003) – shimmering black bands interspersed with yellow, bronze and duck-egg blue stripes – was also constructed from aluminium bottle tops; it’s part of an important group of 11 works that comprises the ‘Gawu’ series (2001–04). Adinkra Sasa is a phrase in Anatsui’s language, Ewe, and has several potential meanings, including ‘metal’ and ‘a fashioned cloak’; adrinka is the name of the dyed cloth stamped with symbols made by the Akan people of Ghana and worn during periods of mourning.
Anatsui’s father was a renowned weaver and the artist’s initial exposure to art was through traditional African patterns and fabrics. It was while at art school in Ghana that he realized his interests lay more in the origins and meanings of these patterns than the process of making them. Interested in using what Anatsui describes as a ‘language from home […] from my own culture and environment’, the artist has played a major role in the redressing of a Western-centric art canon that deemed abstraction a primarily American or European endeavour.
Anatsui’s ceramic works from the late 1970s are a remarkable and lesser-exhibited aspect of his oeuvre. While teaching at the university of Nigeria in 1978, he worked with clay to develop a series titled ‘Broken Pots’, which make art-historical references to Nok terracotta sculptures, West African earth myths and the everyday use of clay. Omen (1978) is a hollow sphere out of which a creature’s tendrils seem to slither. Combined with its threatening title, the work has an unnerving effect, suggesting an unknown entity in a state of transition and growth. Other works, such as Imbroglio (1979), recall dried and stacked coral forms. Wooden sculptures from the 1980s, including Devotees (1987) carved from black afar a wood, provide a hint of humour: expressive, cartoon-like faces recall mass-produced totems piled high in souvenir shops; eyes, nostrils and mouths bevelled as holes suggest hypnotism, anger, awe, bemusement and joy. (These were further mirrored in the artist’s undated charcoal drawings.)
While Anatsui’s earlier works are indicative of cultural specificity and local symbolism, it is his later works of repurposed materials that have a voice both unique and universal. Crafted from bottle tops, Stressed World (2011), for example, is perhaps one of the most political and complex pieces in the show. With a belief that the ‘environment is one of the richest places to be’ the tapestry evokes both a landscape and a map of the world. Patches fall away or seemingly dissolve, exposing the bare wall beneath and suggesting depleted foliage. Anatsui has described how ‘we were able to move faster than nature and destroyed it in the process as a result of mechanization, resulting in global warming’. Underpinned by a playful imagination, his materials move through different states of transformation and call to mind an unstable world in flux. Concerned with the effects of environmental degradation and human fallibility, Anatsui’s works nonetheless harness a sense of joy in our ability to adapt and evolve, seeing beauty in the everyday; this is, however, underpinned by the inescapably bleak implications of a world economy that continues to be bound by consumerism and waste.