Retrospective of African Artist El Anatsui Opens at the Denver Art Museum

Display spans four decades and includes eight glittering metal wall sculptures

El Anatsui, Sacred Moon, 2007. Aluminum and copper wire; 103 x 141 in. Photo courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery.
El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa traces the prolific career of El Anatsui—one of contemporary art’s leading figures—from his early woodwork in Ghana to today’s metal wall sculptures created in his studio in Nigeria, offering an unprecedented opportunity for visitors to follow the artist’s creative development and process throughout 40 years. The exhibition, featuring 65 works, includes eight spectacular metal wall sculptures made from thousands of bottle caps as well as numerous works from the artist’s own collection. This is Anatsui’s most comprehensive exhibition to date. Organized by the Museum for African Art (MfAA), New York, the exhibition will be on view in the level four galleries in the Hamilton Building September 9 through December 30, 2012.

“This retrospective delves into the work of one of today’s most extraordinary artists and offers a full view of his poignant and luminous works,” said Christoph Heinrich, Frederick and Jan Mayer Director of the Denver Art Museum. “We’re focusing on his individual creativity and giving visitors an opportunity to see how he evolved throughout his career.”

When I Last Wrote to You about Africa brings together the full range of the artist’s work, from early wood trays, to ceramics and wooden sculptures, to the luminous metal wall sculptures which have brought him international acclaim. It explores Anatsui’s unique practice of transforming simple materials—often discarded or overlooked pieces such as driftwood, milk tins and bottle tops—into striking works of art that tell personal and universal stories.

“El Anatsui is a master of material,” said Nancy Blomberg, curator of native arts at the DAM. “This is the first time viewers will get the chance to experience the breadth of his life’s work and discover the story it tells. This exhibition has a great connection to our own African art collection.”

In 2008, the DAM’s native arts department commissioned Rain Has No Father?, a 13 ft., 2 in. tall by 19 ft., 9 in. wide tapestry, which Anatsui created out of found liquor bottle tops and copper wire. The artwork debuted as part of Embrace!, a site-specific exhibition celebrating the unique architecture of the Daniel Libeskind-designed Hamilton Building in 2010. Today it hangs in the African art galleries, adjacent to the retrospective display. Visitors can make direct connections between the stunning metal wall sculpture and the comprehensive collection of Anatsui’s work hanging a few feet away.

The exhibition is accompanied by the richly illustrated catalogue, El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa, with contributions by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University; Lisa Binder, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum for African Art, New York; Olu Oguibe, Professor of Art and Art History at the University of Connecticut; Chika Okeke-Agulu, Assistant Professor Art and Archaeology at Princeton University; and Robert Storr, Dean of the Yale School of Art. After the DAM, the exhibition will travel to the University of Michigan Museum of Art, February 2–April 28, 2013.

The Exhibition

“El Anatsui has been writing to us about Africa for a very long time,” said exhibition curator Lisa Binder. “For over four decades he has created drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures and installations that convey histories both personal and universal. Each work has its own story to tell, though, when seen together, they relate to each other like words in a sentence…”

In the 1970s, Anatsui began to manipulate broken ceramic fragments. With their allusions to ancient Nok terracotta sculptures, West African myths about the earth and cultural references to the use of clay, the ceramic works piece together shattered ideas and histories to form a new whole. In the same decade, he also made sculptures that brought together signs and symbols from various cultures and languages, created by chopping, carving, burning and etching wood.

In the 1990s, Anatsui made a crucial shift from working with hand tools to carving with a power saw, which enabled him to cut through blocks of wood, leaving a jagged surface that he likened to the scars left by the European colonial encounter with Africa.

In his most recent metal wall sculptures, Anatsui assembles thousands of West African liquor-bottle tops into moving patterns of stunning visual impact, transforming this simple material into large shimmering forms. When I Last Wrote to You about Africa includes the largest compilation of Anatsui’s works ever assembled, including massive wall pieces and large-scale floor installations.

The Artist

El Anatsui was born in Ghana in 1944. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sculpture and a postgraduate diploma in art education from the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. He began teaching at the University of Nigeria in 1975 and went on to head the Fine and Applied Arts Department from 1998 to 2000. He held the title of Professor of Sculpture prior to retiring in 2011.

Anatsui’s work has appeared in group exhibitions at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA; the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.; the Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, Finland; and in international exhibitions such as Africa Remix (2005-2007) and The Missing Peace (2006-2011). His work has also been selected for numerous biennial exhibitions, including in Venice (1990 and 2007), Havana (1994), Johannesburg (1995), Gwangju (2004), Sharjah (2009), Paris Triennial (2012) and the Biennale of Sydney (2012). Solo exhibitions include Gawu, on view in Europe, North America and Asia (2004-2008), Gli at the Rice University Art Gallery, Houston (2010), A Fateful Journey: Africa in the Works of El Anatsui at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan (2010) and El Anatsui at the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (2011). In 2008, Anatsui received the Visionaries Artist Award from the Museum of Arts and Design, in New York City. He is also a laureate of the 2009 Prince Claus Award.

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Exhibition Credit Line

El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa is organized by the Museum for African Art, New York. Supported, in part, by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts. In Denver support is provided by the generous donors to the Annual Fund Leadership Campaign and the citizens who support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD).

El Anatsui, Assorted Seeds II, 1989. Wood; 27-1/8 x 31 x 7/8 in. Photo courtesy Museum for African Art / Kelechi Amadi-Obi.

El Anatsui, Untitled, 1980s. Acrylic on Masonite. Photo courtesy Museum for African Art / Jerry L. Thompson

El Anatsui, Rain Has No Father?, 2008. Found bottle tops with copper wire; 158 x 237 in. Denver Art Museum; funds from Native Arts acquisition fund, U.S. Bank Colorado, Douglas Society, DAM Volunteer Endowment, African-American Outreach Committee and private individuals. Photo by Jeff Wells.

El Anatsui, Omen, 1978. Ceramic; 15-1/2 x 21 x 16-1/2 in. Photo courtesy Museum for African Art/Kelechi Amadi-Obi.

El Anatsui, Sacred Moon, 2007. Aluminum and copper wire. Photo courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery.