Ghanaian sculptor Brahim El Anatsui's father was a master weaver who taught the tradition of strip-weaving Kente cloths to his sons. This textile technique has become a staple of El Anatsui's art: he amasses and refashions the debris from his community to create majestic, visual narratives that address his personal history and global issues like environmental sustainability. The North American premiere of his four-decade career retrospective When I Last Wrote to You About Africa is at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, having been extended to Feb. 27. It is the start of a three-year travelling exhibition at galleries all over North America.
Fittingly, Anatsui's popularity has forced him to become something of a globetrotter: in the last decade, he has exhibited in major international art shows including the Venice Biennale (the major contemporary art show held every two years), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Centro de Cultura Contemporania Barcelona.
Toronto's show is a homecoming for this sculptor, whose first trip outside of Africa was to attend a sculpture conference at York University in 1978, as well as a happy accident. When I Last Wrote to You About Africa was originally scheduled to debut in the new Museum for African Art in Manhattan, but construction woes there forced the museum to offer their slot to the ROM. The exhibit is comprised of 60 pieces ranging from hangings to sculptures and paintings.
Toronto has warmly welcomed Anatsui back and seems loath to part with his work; indeed, the ROM has just purchased the wall piece Straying Continents for its permanent collection. This massive 12m x 5m hanging made from liquor bottle tops and copper wire is an original work that the artist created specifically for the museum.
"It is an iconic addition to the ROM's collections, one that powerfully conveys Africa in a poetic and contemporary way," said ROM director Janet Carding.
Anatsui spends most of his time in Nigeria, where he has been a professor at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka since 1975. He is a member of the Nsukka Group, a body of mainly Nigerian artists who attempted to revitalize the practice of Uli, the traditional drawings of the Igbo people. These designs are linear and occasionally incorporate asymmetrical designs. The Nsukka Group translated their drawings into the 20th century with acrylic and oil paint, pen and ink, and pastel. Correspondingly, Anatsui wove African traditions into his own work.
Anatsui's early work concentrated on sculpting wood and ceramics, and he gained some renown for this, but it was the creation of the metallic tapestries that captured the art-loving public's imagination. In 2002, he discovered a bag of discarded aluminum bottle caps of whisky, schnapps, rum, gin and vodka, along with bottle sleeves, near his university. It gave him the idea to recycle them into hangings. The caps were also reminiscent of a significant historical fact: alcohol was the first commodity to be introduced to Africa by European traders and it eventually became a staple of the slave trade.
Although Anatsui, 66, trained as a sculptor, his work has a malleability that is reminiscent of fabric. In Art Interview magazine, he agreed with this assessment; however, he explained that his real interest lies in the format of his art: "I'm not interested in fabric per se. It's the form of the cloth: that it's free, that you can put it on a wall, squeeze it into a small ball, drape it on the floor, anything."
Assembling the hangings is arduous: 20 or more studio assistants flatten thousands of caps and labels that are then punctured and woven together by copper wire. Anatsui then arranges them into pieces like his 2009 hanging Three Continents, which shimmers like an emperor's robe. It represents a new kind of cartography that not only traces Ghanaian traditions like the art of fabric weaving like Kente, but also points towards a future in which today's excesses can be redeemed. This metallic canvas outlines a vast empire -- from the slight swell of the aluminum sea to the undulating ribbons of a red desert.
The Peak Project suggests a similar fluidity. This installation is an ode to the legend of King Midas: heaps of golden coins made from the lids of Peak Milk cans are invisibly linked by wire into sheets and then folded to a gilded point. Each time this exhibit is installed in a new location, the art-installers are complicit in its reinvention simply by their placement of each "Peak". Milk is still imported to Africa from Europe and North America; the cans and their packaging produce mountains of debris owing to West Africa's recycling limitations. Rubbish creates its own landmarks -- and not all of them appear in art galleries.
Anatsui's wooden sculptures are also made from discarded objects: Chief in Zingliwu is a warrior made of driftwood and wrapped in corrugated metal; the African equivalent of a crimson pocket square peeps through the armour, hinting at his vulnerability -- and the debts of war. His companion piece, The Lady in Frenzy, is made of similar materials, but her demeanour is coy: one foot turns restlessly outwards as the rest of her body entreats him to engage her.
These sculptures reveal the history buried in objects from his community, and their possible futures. This mutability is central to life and to the evolution of Anatsui's art. He turns the public into time-travelling tourists; in El Anatsui's adept hands, the present and future can be faced with renewed optimism.
For more information on the exhibition El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, visit The Royal Ontario Museum website or call 416-586-8000.
Peripatetic by nature and a poet by design, Cara worked for a bank and charity before focusing on writing. She is based in Toronto. Find her at belledejournal.com.