El Anatsui's Routes to Discovery, 2021, Painted wood Work: 153 x 208 cm.
El Anatsui's Routes to Discovery, 2021, Painted wood Work: 153 x 208 cm.
Image: Supplied

In a first for Goodman Gallery Cape Town, legendary and internationally acclaimed Ghanaian artist El Anatsui opens his first solo show there on March 24th.

Anatsui is one of Africa’s most feted and recognisable artists, with a career spanning five decades. His signature style is to transform simple, everyday and often discarded materials into complex assemblages that have a distinctive visual character. It is a mode of working that has had significant international, but especially African, influence. His work is said to interrogate the history of colonialism and draw connections between consumption, waste and the environment, but all his work is essentially sculptural.

His practice grows out of a long association with currents in Nigerian art post-independence, a country where he spent much of his life teaching. Anatsui was associated with the various “natural synthesis” art movements driven by Uchi Okeke, who headed the department at Nsukka University where Anatsui lectured. Natural synthesis attempted to meld the traditions of the various peoples making up contemporary Nigeria with postcolonial social and political realities. Much of this approach remains true of Anatsui’s work in his conceptual use of materials, but the development of his own unique formal language that distinguishes his practice has been consistent.

The current Goodman Gallery show is entitled Freedom. The exhibition follows Anatsui’s comprehensive survey at the Haus der Kunst; El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale (2019), curated by Okwui Enwezor and which travelled from Munich to Doha and Bern, as well as his museum solo exhibition, Meyina (2018), at the Iziko National Gallery in Cape Town.

This new body of work reflects Anatsui’s focus on scale, continuing his method of using materials ubiquitous and relevant to his environment. The exhibition title is a nod to Anatsui’s monumental tapestry of the same name, in which traces and outlines weave themselves into striking patterns that recall cartographic entanglements. An arrangement of aluminium, copper wire and nylon string creates pathways and routes that suggest but also challenge spatial contours. The immediate provocation is to consider the ways in which the definition of territories and borders has come to restrict free movement and displace and alienate populations and communities.

El Anatsui's National Identity Card, 2021 Painted wood Work: 177 x 225 cm.
El Anatsui's National Identity Card, 2021 Painted wood Work: 177 x 225 cm.
Image: Supplied

This conceptual armature also underpins works such as the vertical fixed panels of Routes to Discovery and National Identity Card, which reflect the artist’s early practice of incorporating cut wood and lumber often sourced from the Nsukka Market in Nigeria. In Routes to Discovery, Anatsui emphasises once again the borders that some have placed to curtail the freedom of others. The straight and structured lines are interrupted by organic rings that offer a sense of reprieve. The subtle textures of National Identity Card gesture in turn at the different things that make up and break apart an identity — fingerprints, a connection to heritage and folkloric traditions as well as more contemporary tools of identification such as DNA recognition.

Throughout the exhibition, there is abundant evidence of the playfulness of his practice in turning these unlikely materials into sculptural pieces. But this is not to deny the meaningful and poignant nature of his assemblages, as he imbues everyday objects and even waste material with a grace and ability to convey sociopolitical meaning while still remaining about the personal.

El Anatsui's Freedom, 2021, Aluminium, copper wire and nylon string. Work: 310 x 893 cm.
El Anatsui's Freedom, 2021, Aluminium, copper wire and nylon string. Work: 310 x 893 cm.
Image: Supplied

In recent years the artist has received major career honours. In 2015, he was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, the Venice Biennale’s highest honour. In 2019, El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale, a major career survey curated by Okwui Enwezor, opened at Haus der Kunst and is due to travel to Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Kunstmuseum Bern and Guggenheim Bilbao.

Anatsui lives and works between Ghana and Nigeria.

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