Nov 15, 2011

REVIEW | El Anatsui, When I Last Wrote To You About Africa, Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX

El Anatsui, Akua's Surviving Children, Wood and Metal, 1996
        This exhibition is filled with vibrant color and beautiful, rugged, and raw materials showing the culture and folklore of this African Artist.  Just a few blocks from the Texas State Capitol on the University of Texas campus I took a small journey into the heart of Africa at the Blanton Museum through the eyes and work of El Anatsui.

Born in Ghana in 1944, El Anatsui knew he was different from his other thirty-two brothers and sisters when he took interest in symbols and the shape they created meant more to him than just symbols or letters.  In this exhibition I saw works from over the last five decades of his artistic career.  When you first walk into the space there is a fairly open area with a large wall on the left and open free standing sculptures scattered evenly to the right funneling you along the outter wall to eventually bring you back to the middle to finish.  The first piece you walk upon is a very large, shiny, multi-colored quilt looking piece hung off the wall at different distances on your left.  By different distances I'm stating that the installations look like their moving or flowing in the wind like a flag might be.  What is especially interesting about not just this piece but the whole exhibition, is that El Anatsui allows the museum to set up his intallations as they would like to or how they see them fitting the space best. 

El Anatsui, Untitled, Aluminum and Copper Wire, 2007
This piece was donated to the Museum by Jeanne and Michael Klein, so it will remain at the Blanton for all to see.  It is being held up by clear plastic rods stuck into styrofoam to hold it and create the textures.  The medium he used here are the tops and wrappers from the necks of African liquor bottles wired together in different patterns to create movement and meaning to these large works.  There were at least five or six of these large creations with different color schemes,flow, and sizes throughout the exhibition.

So after passing this first piece on the wall in the entrence of the space I came up to a series of sculptures on the ground in the corner of the room which would then turn you down a long wall leading you past more single wooden and tin sculptures on your right.  But in the corner, the sculptures were made out of old milk can lids slightly rusting but still very shiny and wired together  reminding me of little mountains. 

El Anatsui, Peak Project, Tin and Copper Wire, 1999
After seeing this piece I passed another two of the monumental blankets as I would call them, just as large and colorful as the beginning one till I hit the next corner of the room.  This corner had a wide variety of boxes with open lids and bright accented African colors representing an African Marketplace.  Following this installation was the sculpture from my first picture, Akua's Surviving Children, which by far was my favorite.  It is composed of logs, some burnt in areas, some even driftwood, but pieced together by metal to shape these people resembling statues.  In Ghana, El Anatsui’s home country, Akan children are given a “day name,” which is based on the name of the day of the week on which he or she was born. Akua is the name for females born on Wednesday. It is believed that all peoples born on the same day of the week have the same kind of soul.  The Akan, one of the West African ethnic groups, also believe ancestors give children to the living to continue their family and their society.

Getting close to the end there was a ceramic snake looking piece laid in the back corner baracaded by a wall that was to represent a river in Africa near El Anatsui's homeland.  Behind that wall was a small television showing how the installations were hung and placed for the exhibition at The Blanton, with a few of his books to browse through and a postcard with a picture of the piece donated by the Klein family.  Finshing my tour through the floor were some of his earlier drawings and paintings hung along the inside wall of the exhibition.  In the free center space were some very interesting pots from his broken pot series that were made with manganese in the clay.  They had this wonderful color and texture to them, almost like a black granite appearance but spotted and rough textured.  Now that we're almost back to where I started there were some old wooden platters or trays that he did early in his career that were hung on the wall that reminded him of the marketplace as a child.  Just across from those were the free standing sculptures I mentioned that were on the right when I first started the exhibition.  They were made from wood and tin and some fabrics, one was a women and the other a man.  The name of the women was Lady in Frenzy, and the man, Chief in Zingliwu, both made in 1999.

El Anatsui has expressed the idea that when one has only humble materials to work with, the act of bringing them together in massive quantities creates the possibility for monumentality.  One of the most important elements in Anatsui’s practice is the element of chance. His work is often comprised of pieces that can be arranged in a variety of ways. He encourages the installer to participate in the work by suggesting placement or order of the final installation.  If you haven't seen his works in person I suggest you do in Austin before the time has past to experience this contemporary art as well as African history of El Anatsui's symbols and myths.

-Devin Glenn


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