Artist brings socially conscious structures to the Hood

These days, hundreds of artists are creating intricate installations out of found objects. On paper, “Gawu,” the new El Anatsui exhibit at the Hood Museum, could easily be lost in this category. In person, however, these works are unforgettable, both visually and socially.

According to El Anatsui, the title of his new exhibit is derived from his native Ghanian language and comprised of two parts: “ga,” implying all things metal, and “wu,” meaning a fashioned cloak.

Standing before these tapestries as they billow out from the wall, it is hard to believe that they are made entirely of metal. The works shimmer and drape as if made from a supple fabric but are in fact a vast web of discarded metal scraps, wired together piece by piece.

El Anatsui was born in Ghana, but since 1975, he has lived in Nigeria, where he is a professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria. One of Africa’s most renowned contemporary artists, El Anatsui is known throughout Europe. This is his first traveling solo exhibition in the United States.

The show includes two brand new, never-before-seen works. “Skin of Earth,” the first of these new metal wall hangings, is the most spectacular in the show, a shimmering golden chain mail curtain of bottle caps.

Sometimes it seems that installation artists receive an “A for effort” — that their art is measured by its difficulty of execution or by the hours spent on its intricacies. “Skin of Earth,” however, is a sincerely dazzling work, transcending time and technicality with its visual splendor.

The implications of each work are determined by the refuse from which they are fashioned. “Peak Project,” for example, is an installation of mountainous cones formed from rusty milk tins. Milk is imported to Africa in vast quantities, but without the recycling technology to deal with the cans, landfills grow endlessly. The leading importer is a brand called Peak Milk.

In this way, all of El Anatsui’s works are imbued with what he calls “a uniquely African characteristic — that things should never be discarded.” In that spirit, his works speak to the vast issues of sustainability in Africa, especially in Nigeria, whose population growth is quickly outpacing recycling infrastructure. Often, installation artists have no connection to their found objects, but El Anatsui uses his materials to brand his art with a unique identity and statement.

The wall hangings are woven together mostly with the tin labels of alcohol bottles or with the bottle caps themselves. The glass bottles can be reused, but the labels are discarded — until they’re transformed into one of El Anatsui’s works.

The tapestries are also inspired by traditional African weaving techniques such as Kente, in which horizontal strips are sewn together into larger cloths. El Anatsui’s process is similar; many friends and assistants help wire the raw materials together, until he ultimately designs the final pattern.

The New York Times has called El Anatsui’s work “glorious,” and this exhibit is indeed spectacular. Upon arriving at the Hood, the viewer sees “Hovor,” a silvery cloud of metal. The work, which the College recently acquired for its permanent collection, contorts and flows across the wall.

“Hovor” is reminiscent of the architect Frank Gehry’s fluttering steel creations. The structure is huge, but its visual impact is effective at both a broad view and upon closer inspection. Another wall hanging, “Adrinka Sasa,” is a dark presence in black and gold. This work, however, overpowers the space it is allotted.

“Adrinka Sasa” leaps off the wall but stands in the shadow of “Crumbling Wall,” a vast metal structure made from rusted graters. Filling the gallery to the ceiling and skewed diagonally just to fit, “Crumbling Wall” is far too squashed to wield its intended effect.

While some of El Anatsui’s works may have been more visually persuasive in a larger space, the show as a whole speaks volumes about the transformative power of art. His tapestries and installations are visually inspiring and also highlight serious social issues. El Anatsui’s sculptures become imbued with the stories of his found materials.

“They become loaded — ‘charged’ is maybe the right word — with a lot of meaning, and talking about all the various stages that they’ve gone through or the various uses that they’ve been put to, that is all written upon them,” El Anatsui says in the exhibition’s catalogue.

That this is El Anatsui’s first solo exhibition in the United States draws attention to this country’s disregard for contemporary African artists living and working in Africa. In fact, El Anatsui prefaced his Jan. 10 opening lecture for the exhibit with a slide show of work by his students in Nigeria.

While El Anatsui’s work is uniquely African in inspiration and context, it is of international significance in an ever-shrinking world. His works will be included in not one but two exhibitions at the prestigious Venice Biennial this year.

“Gawu” will be on view at the Hood Museum until March 4.

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