El Anatsui Sculptures Capture Light and History

Detail of "New World Map" by El Anatsui. Photo courtesy MHC Art Museum

Huge, shimmering curtains of color—that’s what makes visitors’ jaws drop the first time they see works by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. The exhibition New Worlds now in the Art Museum features six massive sculptures, each made from several thousand pieces of …junk.

A longtime resident of Nigeria trained in both Western and African artistic traditions, Anatsui defies stereotypical expectations of what an “African artist” is likely to do. No figurative wood carvings for him. Instead, he creates wall-sized assemblages. Each sculpture consists of thousands of tiny pieces joined by copper wires, and each piece was once part of a liquor bottle band or cap. Anatsui transforms waste into sumptuous, glittering art.

View the trailer for Fold Crumple Crush, a documentary film about Anatsui.

Anatsui’s work is “all about touch,” says exhibition cocurator and Art Museum director John Stomberg. Anatsui and his assistants do the labor-intensive work of joining bits of metal into large-scale, abstract designs. Then he invites even more people to leave their own touches on his creations.

“One of Anatsui’s great innovations,” according to Stomberg, “is that the artist takes a step back once the work is done and lets those who install it take over.” At MHC, Art Museum staff and professors made aesthetic judgments—where to place a fold or make a bulge, whether to hang a piece on the wall or drape it on the floor, how to direct light onto the reflective surfaces—and each choice changed the work dramatically. What the artist calls his “nonfixed forms” are different each time they’re shown.

• View a photo gallery showing how one piece in the MHC exhibition, They Finally Broke the Pot of Wisdom, took shape as it was installed.

Throughout his career, Anatsui has turned recycled materials into art, especially items related to eating such as wooden food-serving trays, ceramic pots, cassava graters, and bottle caps. Amanda Gilvin, exhibition cocurator and Five College Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in African Art and Architecture, says Anatsui “transforms media on which the history lingers.”

The history stuck to each liquor bottle fragment stretches from modern recycling back to the “triangle trade” that brought enslaved Africans to the Americas to raise cane sugar that was refined into liquor and eventually sold back to Africans. Thus, there’s a touch of the continent’s colonial and postcolonial history in each shimmering sculpture.

That these mundane bits of metal carry such weighty intellectual baggage is central to Anatsui’s work, which he has described, Gilvin says, as “good to think with.”

The exhibition continues in the Art Museum through June 8.

• Princeton University professor Chika Okeke-Agulu will deliver a lecture, “El Anatsui and the Reinvention of Sculpture,”at the museum on January 24.

—By Emily Harrison Weir