The many hands of El Anatsui
When I Last Wrote to You About Africa
by Stephanie Douglass
Jeff Koons tasks the lifting of paintbrushes to his tightly controlled troop of 150 paid assistants. Andy Warhol relied upon an assembly line of hired hands to mass-produce his silkscreens and lithographs. And even Michelangelo entrusted the painting of several doughy putti on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to a few skilled helpers.
In a similar embrace of the benefits and possibilities born of collaboration and delegation, the internationally acclaimed Ghanian artist El Anatsui acknowledges the presence, indeed, the necessity, of many hands in his sculptural works. He compares his role to that of an architect who generates the idea and authors the design but requires the painstaking efforts of others to bring a concept into its towering, shimmering existence. At his studio in Nsukka, Nigeria, Anatsui oversees anywhere between twenty and forty young men who assemble the monumental pieces he is most recognized for, his wall sculptures made from discarded bottle tops. Several of these mesmerizing tapestries, as well as many other sculptures, installations, paintings, and drawings, are currently on display in the El Anatsui retrospective, When I Last Wrote to You about Africa, at UMMA through May 5.
You may, by now, be questioning Anatsui's process and the quality of materials used. Certainly, his method challenges the widespread and, for some critics and collectors, preferred image of the solitary artist and his singular shaping hand. Additionally, Anatsui's dazzling transformation of trash and other common or found objects subverts expectations about fine art and the inherent value of the medium. These two features of his work have been central to his practice throughout his forty-year career and can be seen in some of his early pieces on display, a 1970s collection of circular wooden sculptures with colorful patterns, shapes, and ideograms seared and painted onto their surface. Their conception originated in the round Ghanaian market trays traditionally used to hold fresh produce, and they were made by local wood carvers, with Anatsui adding the branded ornamentation.
Similarly, Anatsui commissioned local tinkers to create the more than 1,700 tin boxes that make up the vibrant, sweeping installation Open(ing) Market. This piece, as well as the bottle-top hangings which hold wrinkles and folds like a mussed blanket, owe their shapes and drapes to several additional sets of hands: the exhibit's curator and museum staff, whom Anatsui permits to arrange his work as they like.
Here's where I admit I went to this exhibit just to see the bottle tops. I was unexpectedly drawn to linger, though, before several abstract, anthropomorphic sculptures. Adinsibuli Stood Tall is a rough-hewn and imposing yet welcoming figure whose torso, an old wooden mortar used for palm oil extraction, speaks to us in the vivid ideograms of three Nigerian languages. What's more, I was grateful for the brief and informative curator statements scattered throughout this not-to-be-missed exhibit, many of which serve to illuminate motifs and connect seemingly disparate pieces within El Anatsui's vast and engaging body of work.
[Originally published in March, 2013.]