The Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, who has lived, worked and taught sculpture in Nigeria since the mid-’70s, has shown his shimmering metallic tapestries all over the world. A small but luminous show of recent work is on view this summer and fall at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, Mass. In a conversation with the art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu printed in the exhibition catalogue, Anatsui discusses how his sculptures made from liquor bottle tops address African history: “The currency of drink happened to be used in paying for slaves which were brought to the Americas, where they produced the raw materials for more drink, which went back into Europe and then came back into Africa. So I think drink has a lot to do with the link between the three continents, that historical fact.”
Before Anatsui began turning recycled liquor bottle tops into hanging textiles, he worked mostly with wood and clay. Initially, the wood had a round, irregular shape, like the trays market women used to display their wares. “When I finished school, my idea was that I should work with something that is indigenous to my locality,” Anatsui explained as we wandered around Stone Hill, the Clark’s Tadao Ando-designed annex that houses Anatsui’s exhibition. “I discovered this intriguing body of signs and symbols that are printed onto fabric. Each of them is an encapsulation of an aphorism or a wise saying, some proverb. I would take the symbols and engrave them on the [wood from the] trees. I was using pyrography, using a hot rod to make imprints on wood. So that was how I started.” After working with engraved wood trays, Anatsui moved on to clay. His “Broken Pots” series looked at destruction as a prerequisite for regeneration, “like how a seed has to rot before it sprouts.” These are not included in the current showing.
Anatsui came back to wood, this time carving large hunks with a chainsaw. “I worked with that for probably the longest stretch, 10 to 15 years. When they are mounted, you see them as a unit. But you are able to change their sequence. If you bought it you can ignore the sequence and do it your own way. So the idea of work that changes in format, and then in meaning, was hinted at in this stage.”
Anatsui has worked out of a large, busy studio in Nsukka since the mid-’90s. He typically employs 20–30 assistants who comb through bags of recycled African liquor bottle tops, attaching the flattened and folded metal bits with twists of copper wire. “They are not artists. I just get regular people and teach them how to work,” Anatsui said. “Some have done two years, some up to four. These are young chaps who have finished high school and are studying for university exams. The competition is very tight, so they study for a few years, they stay with me and keep taking the exams.”
The recently opened Stone Hill has two main gallery spaces, each flooded with natural light. One houses a single work, Intermittent Signals (2009). Thirty-five feet long, it stretches from midway along the gallery’s wall around a corner, pulling away, then sagging and bucking till the end droops onto the wood floor.
Anatsui works with a surprising lack of site-specificity, and is not involved in installation. “I normally give the leeway or the freedom to the people to install it how they like; there is nothing specific about it. I want to have the element of surprise.”
The other two pieces in the show—Strips of the Earth’s Skin (2008) and Delta (2010)—have a greater sense of movement. There are no open windows at Stone Hill, yet it feels like they are fluttering in a non-existent breeze. Strips of the Earth’s Skin looks less like a tapestry and more like bits of frayed fabric drying on a clothesline. A mostly silver section weaves through the hanging swaths of red and yellow, anchoring them in place.
By contrast, Delta is a flaglike hanging that falls almost to the floor. It’s divided vertically into two main sections: a rippled, heavily textured pattern made up of thousands of tiny squares and whorls on the right, and a silvery background on the left, which is cut with diagonal strips and, in the upper left corner, a patch that looks like the worn-out knee of an old pair of pants.
It seems impossible that the interlocking patterns that structure these pieces aren’t planned or sketched out in advance. But Anatsui works intuitively, flattening and folding the malleable bottle tops into patches that look like chevrons or madras or vintage gum wrappers. “It’s like doing a painting on a light scale. There’s time to stop and say, bring me some yellow,” he said. “Because of the slow nature of progress, I don’t need to make preparatory drawings.” It’s certainly a far cry from working with a chainsaw.
A touring retrospective, “El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa,” is on view this fall at the Denver Art Museum, Sept. 2–Dec. 1.