El Anatsui's "Another Place"
El Anatsui’s Another Place
On the eve of the arrival at Princeton of El Anatsui, our 2014–2015 Sarah Lee Elson, Class of 1984, International Artist-in-Residence, the Museum purchased an extraordinary recent work by the artist: Another Place (2014). Born in Ghana and based in Nigeria, El Anatsui is one of the most accomplished artists working in Africa—indeed, in the world—today. He has achieved international acclaim for his distinctive two- and three-dimensional sculptures that repurpose copper wire and bottle caps, all from alcoholic beverage containers that he collects from junk depots. From these banal metal caps, a medium he first began to use in 2002, Anatsui is able to extract visual effects of exquisite beauty. In works such as the opalescent Another Place, the artist deftly choreographs color, shape, composition, reflection, and opacity to produce stunning abstract designs, some of which resemble monumental fabric tapestries as well as West African kente cloth, a traditional form of Ewe artistic expression. Sculptures like Another Place are as much intellectual as they are aesthetic statements. The materials that Anatsui employs are implicated in a history of colonialism as well as in consumption and in environmental devastation, all of which involve the long, violent, asymmetrical relationship between Africa and Europe. By virtue of their medium, Anatsui’s works speak to an intricate ecology with social, political, cultural, and environmental consequences.
The bottle caps that compose Another Place are systematically cut, pounded, folded, punched, and then stitched together by the twenty-odd members of Anatsui’s studio, all of them residents of Nsukka, Nigeria. This process is reminiscent of a technique used by historical Ghanaian artists to flatten locally mined gold into foil before applying it to volumetric shapes. The creation of each design involves masterful acts of calibration on the part of the artist. The color, position, and orientation of every cap are measured against those of every other cap so as to generate evocative compositions like the one seen here, which suggests an aerial perspective on an imaginary landscape. Once assembled, moreover, these caps form a pliable, lightweight sheet of metal with no stable form. The versatile, metamorphic character of a work like Another Place has philosophical implications: “I believe that human life is not something which is cut and dried,” Anatsui has said. “It is something which is constantly in a state of change. So many years ago I was a toddler, and now I am old and gray-haired. If things were not so, I would have remained a toddler, and I want my artworks to replicate that experience.”
Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art