The Royal Ontario Museum is currently host to “El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa,” a 40-year career retrospective for the celebrated Ghanaian artist. It’s great luck to have the exhibition debut in Toronto. It was planned to premiere at the opening of the Museum for African Art’s new building on Fifth Avenue in New York, but ongoing museum construction delays got in the way.
Curator Robert Storr put Anatsui into the art world’s spotlight in 2007, when he hung Dusasa I and Dusasa II at the Venice Biennale. The grand bottle-top tapestries were a vision—no small feat given the cavernous Arsenale space. Similarly, the ROM installation can feel awkward and overly stylized in places, but Anatsui’s work shines nevertheless.
Anatsui’s wall hangings blur the boundaries between sculpture, installation, painting, craft and design. Sacred Moon, for example, is a rippling tapestry of flattened liquor-bottle caps sewn together using copper wire. Measuring nearly 12 feet across, this work is a virtual landscape. Islands of textured orange punctuate a sea of silver aluminum and a powerful asphalt stripe. Though it’s hung on a wall, Sacred Moon is by no means two-dimensional. The surface undulates gently and reads like a topographical model.
Geography plays an important part in Anatsui’s practice. His cascades of disposable bottle caps make a poignant comment on the environmental effects of our consumer culture. Simultaneously, the patterns he constructs pay homage to West African textile traditions, including kente. Using unremarkable found fragments, Anatsui urges us to reconnect with the philosophy of community.
The wall hangings are the exhibition headliners, but the artist’s other works are impressive too. In Open(ing) Market, Anatsui’s interest in economic networks is again evident. The installation features thousands of handmade tin boxes lined with product labels, including Nestlé and Dr. Pepper. The boxes are opened to varying degrees, creating a sense of movement and anticipation. Peak Project is composed of up to 50 sheets of linked Peak-brand milk-tin lids. Each sheet is displayed as a standing cone. The result is a strange army of anthropomorphic blobs that looks humorously unthreatening. Again, what comes across is Anatsui’s ability to animate, transform and reshape the everyday.