Entering an exhibition of El Anatsui’s work at the
Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, my eyes and spirit
adjust to the dimmed lights and inviting quiet.
Slowly, I begin to take in shimmering curtains of
color that shift and glow in layers of rich texture.
The change in atmosphere feels almost magical,
so it comes as no surprise to learn that in Africa,
where Anatsui is from, artists are often seen as
mediators of supernatural energies.
Magic or not, Anatsui’s laborious creative process
effects a powerful transformation; despite a luxurious appearance, these wall hangings and standing
sculptures are made from trash.
When goods are shipped to Africa from other
areas of the world, the means to recycle the packaging materials locally are limited, and so boxes, tins,
bottles, and cans accumulate in large piles. A strong
believer in making art with what’s available rather
than using store-bought materials, Anatsui collects
the detritus and uses it for his art.
Skin of the Earth (2006), an expanse of glimmering
gold punctuated with bright red and blue, is made
from thousands of aluminum caps from liquor
bottles, the consumption of which has drastically
increased since Africa was colonized by European
Each cap is carefully flattened, and the small
pieces are attached in small sections using a process
that recalls the tradition of weaving kente cloth.
A series of silvery cones that curiously resembles
a Dr. Seuss landscape, Peak Project (1999) is made
from the circular tops of discarded milk tins.
Originally from Ghana, Anatsui came to Nigeria
in 1975 and has lived and worked there ever since.
As a teacher at the University of Nigeria, he has
influenced a generation of young artists and is
recognized as one of Africa’s foremost artists. In
recent years, his evocative and thought-provoking
work has also gained the well-deserved attention
of the contemporary art world.
— Annie Buckley
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