Cultural currency: El Anatsui at Carriageworks

 

El Anatsui: Five Decades was the first presentation of the newly minted ‘Schwartz Carriageworks’ programming initiative following the recent gift of AU$500,000 by prominent Australian gallerist Anna Schwartz to Australia’s largest multi-arts centre to develop a five-year series of international and Australian visual arts projects. Being firmly committed to contemporary practice with an emphasis on social and cultural diversity that has been emphatically earned rather than simply paid lip service to under the directorship of Lisa Havilah since 2011, Carriageworks should be commended for presenting a solo exhibition of work by a Ghanaian artist who since the turn of this century has gained international prominence while remaining committed to living, teaching and creating work in the small university town of Nsukka nestled in south-eastern Nigeria. El Anatsui: Five Decades was all the more welcome for being a very rare instance of a major solo exhibition in Australia of contemporary work by a living artist working in Africa (if one excludes South African William Kentridge who has inarguably enjoyed widespread exposure in this country, from this assessment).

That being said, a visitor expecting a substantial survey of El Anatsui’s practice over half a century – especially gallery-goers for whom the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s Francis Bacon: Five Decades from 2012–13 remains seared to retinal memory – might have been disappointed by its scope. Rather, the exhibition was predominantly comprised of works produced since 2000: there were five small drawings, undated but presumably from the artist’s early career; five small ceramics from 1977–79; only two small wooden sculptures from 1987 and one other from 1995; and 14 separate large-scale sculptures from the ten-year period 2004–14. With this in mind, one assumes that the title was retained following El Anatsui: Five Decades presented last year by New York City’s Jack Shainman Gallery in its satellite exhibition space in Kinderhook, upstate New York. The work labels at Carriageworks credited the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery for the presentation, so either the undertaking was to some extent pre-packaged by the artist’s dealer, or Carriageworks’s curator Beatrice Gralton sourced loans from private collections that went unacknowledged. Regardless, Gralton spectacularly yet sensitively displayed the works across the former rail yard’s brick and steel girder atrium and adjoining white cube that was Anna Schwartz Gallery’s former Sydney base.

Alive with an unabashed adoration of shimmering colour and tactile splendour, El Anatsui’s stunning creations ensured that Carriageworks was bustling during my visit. The urge to raise mobile devices to capture and share online images of the glittering light reflected by the tens of thousands of aluminium alcohol bottle tops, from which the most recent works are made, attests to their aesthetic seductiveness. To take in from afar an object such as the showstopper Adinkra Sasa (2003), a magisterial black metal cloth shot through with patterned golden lines, and realise on closer inspection that it is in fact made up of thousands of flattened Dark Sailor and Liquor Headmaster branded rum bottle tops offset by yellow Niccolo Ponche labels, is to recognise the imaginative power of the artist’s ability in reshaping everyday waste. Making reference to adinkra symbols, often stamped on dyed cloth designs made by the Akan peoples of Ghana typically used in mourning ceremonies, El Anatsui fuses an entire history of the Atlantic triangular slave trade (rum being both commodity and currency) with traditional visual languages and customs that suggests an optimistic faith in the transformative power of physical and moral renewal.   

By contrast, the smaller sculptures from the 1970s are all the more poignant for their sombre toughness in both form and spirit. The earliest work in the exhibition, Chambers of Memory (1977), struck me particularly hard. A twisted human head form whose rear is blasted into an open cavity is at once suggestive of the heart’s four ventricles, a bullet’s horrific exit wound and the environmental brutality of an open-cut mine. Its ceramic and manganese form could be seen as a tortured icon for the convulsions of pro-independence struggles across Africa during the second half of last century. For this Portugal-born writer at least – whose mother grew up in Angola until the first shock of anti-colonialist guerrilla violence erupted in 1961, and whose father was conscripted to serve the ignominious last gasp of his nation’s imperialist enterprise in Mozambique a decade later – this work drove home an indisputable fact: the lived experience of what is inadequately termed ‘postcolonial’ is always and forever inaccessible to its descendants, though art may strive to bridge this gulf.

 

El Anatsui: Five Decades, Carriageworks, Sydney, 7 January - 6 March 2016.

Published in Art Monthly Australasia, no. 288, April 2016, pp. 52-53.

© Pedro de Almeida 2016.


Images (left to right):

El Anatsui: Five Decades exhibition signage, Carriageworks, Sydney, 2016. Photo: Pedro de Almeida.

Adrinka Sasa (2003) (detail), Carriageworks, Sydney, 2016. Fabric, aluminium and copper wire. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shaiman Gallery, New York. Photo: Pedro de Almeida. 

Installation view of Tiled Flower Garden (2012) Carriageworks, Sydney, 2016. Aluminium and copper wire. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shaiman Gallery, New York. Photo: Pedro de Almeida. 

Waste Paper Bags (2004-2010) (detail), Carriageworks, Sydney, 2016. Printed plates (aluminium) and copper. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shaiman Gallery, New York. Photo: Pedro de Almeida. 

Installation view of Womb of Time (2014), Carriageworks, Sydney, 2016. Aluminium and copper wire. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shaiman Gallery, New York. Photo: Pedro de Almeida. 

Installation view of Belma (2006), Carriageworks, Sydney, 2016. Found aluminium and copper wire. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shaiman Gallery, New York. Photo: Pedro de Almeida. 

Installation view of Group Photo (1987), Carriageworks, Sydney, 2016. Ebony and iroko woods. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shaiman Gallery, New York. Photo: Pedro de Almeida. 

Installation view of Garden Wall (2011), Carriageworks, Sydney, 2016. Aluminium and copper wire. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shaiman Gallery, New York. Photo: Pedro de Almeida. 

Installation view of Chambers of Memory (1977), Carriageworks, Sydney, 2016. Ceramic and maganese. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shaiman Gallery, New York. Photo: Pedro de Almeida.