London’s October Gallery, devoted to celebrating the work of international artists, marks its fortieth anniversary year with a stunning new show of work by one of Africa’s most celebrated artists, El Anatsui. Report by Beverly Andrews.
Entitled Material Wonder*, this show will coincide with the largest retrospective of the artist’s work to date: El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale at Germany’s Haus der Kunst in Munich. In February 2020, his massive Tsiatsia – Searching for Connection will be installed in the BMW atrium of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town.
In 2013, El Anatsui, who is rapidly becoming one of the most celebrated contemporary artists in the world, won the prestigious Charles Wollaston Award for a courtyard installation at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He uses various mediums to explore complex themes in his work, which seems increasingly to focus on the concept of identity. Throughout his long career, he has worked through the medium of cement, ceramics and hardwood. But he is most renowned today for his use of aluminium bottle tops, painstakingly flattened at his studio in Nigeria and then sewn together into dazzlingly beautiful configurations which defy their original purpose. Much of the success of this work is in fact that the material can be reshaped and reformed again and again.
El Anatsui says: “I was playing with this idea of a ‘fabric’ as something that’s not fixed. The folds in the material have their own way of running – I don’t create them – they happen naturally, by themselves. The amazing thing about working with these ‘fabrics’ is that each time you display one of them – it becomes an entirely new work of art.”
He is also fascinated by the physical journey of the material he uses and particularly the bottle tops – taking what society discards and turning that material into great art. It is a comment on our often disposable culture but also a comment on the links which perhaps bind Africa and the West together historically.
In an old interview El Anatsui commented, “I saw bottle caps as relating to the history of Africa in a sense that when the earliest group of Europeans came to trade, they brought along rum, originally from the West Indies, that then went to Europe and finally to Africa as three legs of the triangular trade … The drink caps that I use are not made in Europe; they are all made in Nigeria, they symbolise bringing together the histories of these two continents.”
In this current exhibition, pieces that stands out particularly include Change in Fortune, which resembles a beautiful, golden shirt won by a newly prosperous individual and the breathtakingly beautiful Gudali. El Anatsui’s work always seems to somehow combine Africa’s past and present, as well as gently suggesting an optimistic future.
In 2014, El Anatsui was made an Honorary Royal Academician and elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2015, he was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at All the World’s Futures, the 56th Venice Biennale, and, in 2016, the University of Cape Town conferred an Honorary Doctorate upon him. In 2017, he was awarded the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Award for Sculpture. All deserved honours for one of the world’s most celebrated artists. This show in a welcome opportunity to see some of his stunning work. NA
*‘Material Wonder’ continues at the October Gallery until 6 April.