African art exhibit is ‘all about what you don’t see’

Friday, April 4, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 8:09 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
El Anatsui's "Adinkra Sasa," made of aluminum and copper wire and fabric, resembles the adinkra mourning cloths of his native Ghana. His first solo show in the U.S. is at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

Sculpture sure ain’t what it used to be.

The days when statuary was a set, rigid thing with but a single, clear meaning — Heroism! Sorrow! Love! — are gone.

El Anatsui exhibit

“El Anatsui: Gawu” is on display through Sept. 7 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. S.W., Washington, D.C. Admission is free. For information, call 202-633-1000 or go to

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El Anatsui wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Sculpture should not be fixed,” says the Ghanaian-born artist, whose first U.S. solo exhibition arrived in March at the National Museum of African Art. Even the show’s title, “Gawu” — a word from the artist’s native language, Ewe, suggesting both “metal” and “cloak” — contradicts. Like “Iron Curtain,” it calls to mind both rigidity and flexibility.

Gawu’s most obvious allusion, of course, is to the fabric-like sheets the artist fashions from discarded bottle caps and aluminum neckbands that once graced liquor bottles, several examples of which are on view. A commentary on alcohol abuse? Certainly. (Distilleries are plentiful near Nsukka, Nigeria, where Anatsui has lived and worked for 28 years. This leads to both a ready source of raw material for the artist, who “sews” the little bits of flattened metal together with copper wire, as well as an opportunity to witness the magnitude of his adoptive country’s booze consumption.)

El Anatsui’s messages span the environmental, the political and the economic, so scraps of metal can represent the growing trash problem — what the artist calls the “Balkanization” of Africa by Europe — and the unequal economic relationship between the continent and the West, where the distilleries originated.

Such pungent mutability is precisely what draws Anatsui to his chosen medium. That and the ability to fold up like a bedsheet the work for which he is best known. Check out “Blue Moon,” a new work the artist says he brought with him on the plane. Could there be a subtle statement about globalization going on there? Something about the porousness of national borders? Why not?

“I regard myself as someone who has provided a set of data,” Anatsui says. How the audience reads that data is of little concern to him.

Or maybe not.

Reading comes into play much more explicitly in “Wastepaper Bag,” a towering 3-D form fashioned from crumpled metal plates the artist fished out of a newspaper printer’s trash. As with all of Anatsui’s work, there are many possible interpretations, including, most superficially, the difficulties of waste management in places such as Nigeria that have poor recycling capabilities.

But there’s another, even more powerful point (which neatly ties in to the fact that Anatsui’s “tapestries” can resemble the adinkra mourning cloths of Ghana). Look closely. You might miss it if you don’t lean in to read the text on some of the aluminum sheets, several of which were once used for obituaries. Make a note of the birth and death dates, Anatsui urges. These are people who died at age 45, maybe 50.

That, he says, points the way to the central metaphor of “Wastepaper Bag.” It isn’t one of overflowing landfills, though he is happy if viewers take at least that much away from his sad and strangely beautiful found-object art. Rather, it’s a message that refers to what he calls the “wasted” lives of far too many fellow Africans.

There is no better example of multiple meanings than “Crumbling Wall,” a richly evocative work made from scavenged sheets of rusted steel. Covered with thousands of tiny perforations, the metal was once used to manually grate cassava roots into a kind of farina that is a staple of the West African diet.

On one level, the pockmarked structure is a nod to the decline of traditional African architecture. Yet it also functions as a symbolic reminder of what the online label text calls “the resilience of African traditions and peoples in the face of change.”

But, like everything else he does, “Crumbing Wall” is all about what you don’t see.

Sure, it forms a barrier of sorts. Anatsui is the first to acknowledge that you can’t see what’s on the other side. But the thing is covered with holes for a reason. After all, he notes, “a wall can only block the eye, but not the imagination.”

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