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Blanton showcases Ghanian's captivating works

Installing Anatsui works proved to be challenging

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Massive sculptures such as 'Stressed World' cover the walls at the 'El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa' exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art. The sculptures are made of found materials that are woven together with copper wire.

The artist El Anatsui has a somewhat modest answer for why, after attending art school at a British-affiliated university in his native Ghana, he turned his efforts away from the Eurocentric art traditions and toward the culture and materials intrinsic to West Africa.

"I went looking for something that belongs to me," he said during a recent talk at the Blanton Museum of Art, where a retrospective of his work is on display.

What he created from what he found is a breathtaking and celebrated body of work that has catapulted the 67-year-old artist who lives and works in Nigeria into the upper echelons of the art world and made him one of the most celebrated contemporary artists working today.

Organized by New York's Museum for African Art, "El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa" is the largest gathering of Anatsui's work ever assembled in the United States. As part of its North America tour, the sprawling exhibit makes a stop at the Blanton through Jan. 22.

Most immediately captivating to any museum visitor are Anatsui's shimmering, massive wall sculptures made of thousands of flexible aluminum tops, discarded from liquor bottles, that are then woven together with copper wire. The wall sculptures read like tapestry, undulating like fabric: a quilt of gold, silver, red and black pieces assembled mosaically in striking patterns and stripes.

But consider the metaphorical meaning of the liquor bottle wrappers and you get to the disquieting message behind much of Anatsui's work. Europeans brought their liquor to Africa centuries ago, using it as currency to trade for slaves. In contemporary Africa, alcoholism remains a socially crippling scourge, a destructive legacy of the colonial era.

Though breathtaking in their immediate beauty, Anatsui's metal wall tapestries - like all his art - reveal potent narratives of the complex history of Africa's relationship to the West.

Other works in the exhibit include a massive gathering of small tin boxes with open lids, each handmade and handpainted, the insides revealing advertisements for cheap Western-produced food products. Called "Open(ing) Market," the boxes seem to pour out of the corner of one gallery like a crowd determined to move forward regardless of any obstacles.

Nearby is an assemblage of large wooden abstracted figures, the top segments burnt a ghostly black. Like so many of Anatsui's works, the assemblage, titled "Akua's Surviving Children," is made of many distinct pieces organized into a large complex whole, a kind of testament to humankind's need to create order out of chaos no matter the flux that history has created.

Anatsui acknowledges chaos - or at least the fluidity of life - with his practice as well.

Although he insists that his metal tapestries be draped rather than hung flat, he doesn't insist on directing that draping. Instead, he invites museums or owners to drape the work however they see fit.

"Art is something which is always in a state of flux," Anatsui said on his visit to the Blanton.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that open-endness with the art's installation poses new and different challenges to museum staff charged with preserving the integrity of artwork. (See the story at right on how on art conservator developed a method to handle Anatsui's metal tapestries.)

The Blanton acquired one of Anatsui's metal wall sculptures in 2009, a gift from Austin art collectors Jeanne and Michael Klein, who also provided philanthropic support for the current exhibition.

Acquiring an Anatsui isn't easy. Blanton deputy director Annette Carlozzi said it took a year and a half of discussions with the artist's gallery before the museum was even offered the opportunity to acquire the piece.

Measuring some 12 feet by 16 feet, the rippling gold and silver sculpture remained untitled until Anatsui visited the Blanton in September for the exhibit opening. Upon viewing it installed among the Blanton's display of its permanent collection of contemporary art, Anatsui finally came up with a title: "Seepage," he proclaimed the piece, said Carlozzi.

Rather than include "Seepage" in the galleries displaying the traveling exhibit, Carlozzi opted to keep it in its usual place.

"It positions (El Anatsui) within the context international contemporary art," she said of the decision. "(His work) is local and very specific in its own way, but also speaks to global issues."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa'