El Anatsui’s first major exhibition in Australia has opened at Carriageworks in Sydney. El Anatsui: Five Decades, a Schwartz Carriageworks Project in association with Sydney Festival, presents more than 30 works from the 1970s to the current day, including ceramics, drawings, sculptures and woodcarvings, alongside the intricate and expansive, large-scale installations for which Anatsui is best known.
Recognised as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists and a recipient of the Gold Lion award for lifetime achievement at the 2015 Venice Biennale, Ghanaian-born Anatsui lives and works in Nsukka, Nigeria. From the earliest works in Five Decades to the most recent, a number of interrelated themes run through the work: transience and transformation, destruction and rebirth, fluidity and weight, found materials and the multiple, trade and consumption.
Anatsui’s practice reflects both his personal history and the broader colonial and post-colonial history of West Africa. A teenager when Ghana achieved independence in 1957, he never the less received a British-modeled tertiary art education, while his childhood was immersed in local tradition, watching his father weave kente cloth. His iconic ‘bottle-top’ works, which here include Stressed World (2011), Blema (2006) and Andrika Sasa (2003), are made from the discarded tops of whiskey, wine, rum, gin, brandy, vodka and schnapps which are flattened, folded and then bound together with copper wire. A comment on the endless cycle of consumption and the alchemical nature of human touch, their use also illuminates the continuing resonance of the once triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas.
While Antasui claims not to be interested in the aesthetics of these monumental works, they are indeed things of magnetic beauty, their opulent glamour evoking at once Byzantine mosaics, the paintings of Klimt, cartography and topography, along with the intricate and richly symbolic printed and woven textiles of West Africa. As ever, he defies easy categorisation with his far grittier Waste Paper Bags (2004-2010). Here Anatsui again surprises with the malleability of an industrial material – aluminum – repurposing printing plates of obituary columns to form a buried testament to the disposable nature of life in a country that continues to face huge social and economic challenges.
In contrast, Anatsui’s early ceramics, prints and sculptures have an intimacy and tactility, incorporating West African adinkra symbols within their surfaces. The artist’s wry cosmopolitism, along with his deep respect for local craft traditions and interest in repetition, can be seen in the ten wooden figures of Devotees (1987,). This sense of humour also infuses Drainpipe (2010) where long sinuous ‘pipes’, made of aluminum can lids linked with copper wire, are more glittering tentacles than plumbing infrastructure.
The artist is known for a lack of preciousness and his collaborative ethos, encouraging curatorial and gallery staff to arrange the work as they wish, making each exhibition truly site specific. This has a particular resonance given the vast post-industrial nature of the Carriageworks site, as well as Australia’s own colonial past. And while the work’s strange suggestions of landscape and the language of abstract painting enchant, it’s the dynamism and resilience of West African culture that is the show’s enduring message.