Friday, 9 August 2013

From Rags to Riches

Ghana or Nigeria. Western Africa. A region of the world where everyday life is made of poverty, hunger, starvation, struggle for survival; where people find a use for everything they can get hold of; where people cherish the rags they wear as treasures they would never discard.

Now think about what can be found as scrap materials in such a place. Not much, most certainly.
And yet, El Anatsui’s creativity and imagination have found in the very wastes of his destitute homeland the items out of which he produces glittering, dazzling, magnificent fluid sculptures which draw their inspiration from the traditional kente cloths which have been woven in his native Ghana since immemorial times. He has been raising international agitation, curiosity and interest within the artistic milieu, as well as among the general public, who stand in line for hours to gaze at his mesmerising wall sculptures made of aluminium bottle-tops and bottle-neck covers, patiently sewed together with copper.

As El Anatsui puts it himself, “the amazing thing about working with these metallic ‘fabrics’ is that the poverty of the materials used in no way precludes the telling of rich and wonderful stories”. This is an allusion to the original kente cloths in which he has found inspiration for his stunning works, since these traditional brilliantly colourful Ghanaian textiles follow specific patterns and each design actually carries with it a story with a proverbial meaning.

From wall size sculpture tapestries such as In the World but don’t know the World (2009), first exhibited at the Dubai Art Fair in 2012, to the monumental shimmering drapery Fresh and Fading Memories (2007), with which the artist completely metamorphosed the Palazzo Fortuny during the 2007 Venice Biennale by covering its whole façade, his works have been growing not only in size, but also in variety.

Curiously enough, his first solo exhibition in a New York museum is presently on (February 8 – August 18, 2013) at the Brooklyn Museum. Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui features from his famous curtain-like sculptures to more unexpected and quite surprising objects. Drainpipe, a tentacle shaped work totally made of sheets of linked milk tin lids, seems to be crawling along the floor to reach the wall and cling on to it, climbing up like a plant.

In this exhibition, viewers are free to move around the works and to set a more intimate kind of interaction with them which, in turn, allows them to fully grasp the humble nature of the metal scraps used to produce such richly stunning, dazzling objects. This further enhances the irony of the deep inequality prevailing between different areas of the world, in spite of globalisation or even thereby made stronger and more obvious. As someone   commented following a visit to this exhibition, it is a great joke “to use discarded material and unskilled labor to produce large scale work that can be folded for easy travel in a globalized art market.”  El Anatsui’s art pieces, therefore, seem to make a statement on the stark contrast between consumerism and waste, as opposed to the frailty and transience of life in his native Africa.

In fact, El Anatsui’s works are evidence of poverty upcycled into objects which rhyme with wealth, thus transforming “rags into riches” while he, himself has – in the process and thanks to his creativity – escaped  destitution and found himself a position of respect among the rich and powerful societies.

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