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The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End

September 30, 2008–April 5, 2009

El Anatsui (Ghanaian, b. 1944)

The scope of meaning associated with cloth is so wide I have not heard it more aptly and succinctly put than by Sonya Clark . . . that cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners. Indeed their capacity and application to commemorate events, issues, persons, and objectives outside of themselves are so immense and fluid it even rubs off on other practices.

—El Anatsui (2003)

The son and brother of men who wove Ewe kente cloth in Ghana's Volta region, textiles have been a leitmotif in Anatsui's own sculptural oeuvre. A graduate of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi (KNUST), as a student Anatsui supplemented his training in Western media with careful observation of the creative efforts of local artisans in regional idioms. Like humanists in the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries who carefully studied the visual language of Greek and Roman classicism and applied it to their own particular subject matter, Anatsui is a twenty-first century master intensely aware of Africa's art historical traditions and who infuses them with new life and meaning.

Over the course of a career that has spanned forty years, Anatsui has been a pioneer in identifying and harvesting a variety of locally available natural and manmade materials from his immediate environment as media for radically new sculptural genres. These have included tropical hardwood, broken ceramic pots, grain mortars, evaporated milk tin lids, cassava graters, driftwood, and, most recently, discarded liquor bottle caps. In the late 1990s, Anatsui developed a form of metal textiles or tapestries. Using the bottle caps discarded by Nigerian distilleries as an experimental material, he sorted them by color before flattening them,and stitching them together with copper wire. In doing so he found that he had arranged them in a manner reminiscent of the fabric and structure of narrow band textiles woven in West Africa. With this dazzling body of work he has developed a new and highly original form of artistry with formal and conceptual links to regional traditions. Since 1975, Anatsui has lectured at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he is professor of sculpture. An internationally acclaimed artist, he was among Africa's first contemporary artists to be featured at the Venice Biennale in 1990.