Histories — personal and universal | Arts & Culture

Histories — personal and universal

Histories — personal and universal

By Lisa Binder 

Organized by the Museum for African Art, “When I Last Wrote to You about Africa” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art is a major retrospective of internationally renowned artist El Anatsui. The exhibition includes sixty works that span decades and media. The Ghanaian-born El Anatsui, who lives and works in Nigeria, is widely known for monumental wall sculptures made from discarded bottle tops, and is recognized as one of the most original and compelling artists of his generation.

The exhibition is in UMMA’s A. Alfred Taubman Gallery I, through May 5.

El Anatsui has been writing to us about Africa for a very long time. For over four decades he has created drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures, and installations that convey histories both personal and universal. Each work has its own story to tell, though, when seen together they relate to each other like words in a sentence that may be rearranged to convey a different message. Anatsui refers to those pieces of a story as bits of data that are free to interact to create new ideas, a method he has encouraged in his students and practiced himself throughout his entire career.

PHOTO ABOVE/RIGHT: El Anatsui’s “Sacred Moon” (2007, aluminum and copper wire), photo by Jack Shainman Gallery

This retrospective takes its name from a suite of the artist’s work produced in the late 1980s. When I Last Wrote to You about Africa is the first line of the poetic title quoted above. Anatsui produced several prints and sculptures by the same name, two of which are included in this exhibition. In a sketch for these works we see his thought process of wording, rewording, and filling in the lines of his letter with adinkra symbols, a west African graphic system used in Ghana. Just as the symbols come together to create various meanings, so do the works on view in this exhibition; they are organized by their aesthetic relationships, so visitors can follow sightlines and make connections, thus filling in their own “blank slots.” In this way, his works seek to tell our story as well as his own.

Many of El Anatsui’s sculptures employ materials once designated for another purpose. Using found objects such as market trays, old mortars, fallen logs, can lids, and cassava graters, he reworks and rearranges materials and transforms them into something new. The vocabulary of Anatsui’s work is inextricably bound to the materials involved in exchanges between the singular-self and group-other. Although individually humble, they become collectively monumental.

The basic things that connect us together as human beings remain a central focus of Anatsui’s practice. Our individual actions as consumers and communicators allow us to participate in a global community. These two themes are especially evident in Anatsui’s sculpture from his early years in Ghana made from market trays through his most recent series comprising thousands of west African bottle tops.

“El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa” is organized by the Museum for African Art, New York, and has been supported, in part, by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
 Lead support for UMMA’s installation is provided by the University of Michigan Health System, Office of the President, Office of the Provost, Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, and Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design; the University of Michigan Credit Union; and the James L. and Vivian A. Curtis Endowment Fund. Additional generous support is provided by the University of Michigan African Studies Center, CEW Frances and Sydney Lewis Visiting Leaders Fund, Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, Department of the History of Art, Institute for the Humanities, Museum Studies Program, and School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Lisa Binder is curator of African Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.