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Contemporary african art: El Anatsui

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Between Earth and Heaven, by El Anatsui
Between Earth and Heaven, by El Anatsui

During a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was meandering through the African Art collection, which is one of my all-time favorite regular exhibits at the museum, when this incredible burst of color, texture, scale and reflectiveness caught my eye. I’d never seen anything like this before. Not at the Met and not anyplace else.
Closeup of Between Earth and Heaven by El Anatsui
Closeup of Between Earth and Heaven by El Anatsui

What I thought was an intricately woven textile design of golden and brightly colored threads was actually a mosaic of carefully hand-crafted bottlecaps and other metallic materials that you’d typically find on the neck or lid of a bottle of spirits, all carefully shaped, arranged and strung together with thin strands of copper wire.
Between Earth and Heaven. El Anatsui (b. 1944), Ghana, Nigeria, 2006.
Aluminum, copper wire
This work by an African master of international renown is a highly original creation that constitutes a response to a classical form of expression. It is a powerful assertion of the vitality of contemporary expression in Africa and the continuity that exists with the historical legacy that is the focus of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s African Art collection. The recent series of works that Between Earth and Heaven relates to refer to the celebrated West African traditions of strip-woven textiles, namely that a kente developed by Akan and Ewe weavers in Anatsui’s native Ghana. Such traditional textiles are at once monumental in scale and highly sculptural in the way they drape the body as the apparel of leaders. The undulation of this work evokes that tactile quality, and its resplendent color scheme of gold, red, and black translate and transpose the aesthetic of finely woven silk into the medium of base metal recycled from liquor bottle caps.
—The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Detail for El Anatsui work
Detail for El Anatsui work
This is detail from another piece by El Anatsui that was on display in the Met’s Modern Art collection. Close up the texture reminds me of brightly colored barnacles…if there were such a thing. And from a few steps away the waves in the material seem more like the sea itself. Or a beautiful draped piece of glimmering tapestry. What do these pieces remind you of?
El Anatsui creating his wall installation | Image by Nash Baker
El Anatsui creating his wall installation, photo by Nash Baker

El Anatsui is a Ghanian sculptor who has been teaching at the University of Nigeria for the past 35 years. A collection of his work called When I Last Wrote to You About Africa is making the rounds as a traveling exhibit to various museums across the country and in Canada through 2013. All made possible by the Museum for African Art which is scheduled to open a brand new facility later this year in Museum Mile on 5th Avenue.
Mary Maru

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