El Anatsui - Triumphant Scale (Haus der Kunst)
By .kojo Adumatta (@aaimba.aaimba)
By .kojo Adumatta (@aaimba.aaimba)
I once watched a movie where a journalist asked a drug addict why taking drugs is such a habit and why he could not stop. The man answered by saying that he is continuously trying to catch the very first feeling he felt when taking it for the first time. Now, this might not be an appropriate anecdote to start a review of El Anatsui's craftmanship. However, that is how it felt - because his creations always produce that first-time, "took-a-hit-and-was-hooked" fascination. El Anatsui's wall sculptures are an overdose of excitement, astonishment and the question of how long it must have taken him to finish specific pieces.
The show at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany was beautiful. It is an approach to show a wide range of Anatsui's long-but-not-always-successful life being an artist and a student of life itself. While the whole world typically focuses on his bottle cap wall sculptures, the Munich institution narrates his humble beginnings in Ghana, where he studied art at the Kwame Nkrumah University in Kumasi. They display his wood sculptures and wall reliefs from the 1980s to late 1990s, and even showcase ceramic sculptures I was unaware of and had never seen before. I also learned that he is or was part of the Nsukka artist group. The group primarily focused their work on reviving the design pattern of "Uli" that originated in southern Nigeria. El Anatsui's wooden artworks were nothing new to me. There was an exhibition with a few of his wood sculptures at the Prince Claude Fund for Culture and Development in Amsterdam in 2016. Maybe it is just me, but I have tried to learn and appreciate his wooden artworks: No matter which angle approached, I am never able to establish an emotional connection to his pieces. I used to criticize him for only creating his bottle cap wall sculptures. After seeing his wooden objects, my judgment has not changed: I believe strongly that a more extensive range of artistic expression after such a long period of creation and teaching would raise his importance in the art world even more.
Every generation has artists and creatives that will stand the test of time. These artists occupy an aura where you know their creations will be fruitful to future generations, while their contemporaries already are thrilled by their genius. Despite my criticism, El Anastui belongs to this elite group. Please bear in mind that I am not talking about a black or an African artist: He is one of the rare artists that elevate themselves above any convention or concept that confronts them. He is delivering a universal language, comprehensible for every generation, associative to every culture, emotionally adopted by women and men. Anatsui's wall sculptures are poetic love letters with aesthetic appearances. Some are full of color and others are monochrome, but each one is full of little stories expressing one big novel. His works invite us to sit down, capture what is displayed, and relax. On the other hand, you are almost obliged to step closer and get a better look at how the small bottle caps are cut and carefully tied together. The observer wonders how his beautifully orchestrated works do not fall from the wall. It is extraordinary how Anatsui's artworks seem to be massive in weight and complexity but still manage to communicate an illusion describable as simple, fluid, smooth and slick at the same time. Truly exceptional!
What I liked the most was the installation in the central room of the exhibition space. It somehow reminded me of a fairytale. The artist formed tiny pieces of the caps to a ring. He bound the circles together, as done with the wall sculptures, shaping them to curtains made out of bottle caps. The only difference is that this order was transparent. It allowed a more or less open view to the room where the commonly known objects were hanging on the wall. They arranged the curtains in the form of a labyrinth with blind alleys but with multiple exit routes. It was fun to walk through them and have these unique outlooks and perspectives.
Finally, I firmly believe that El Anatsui's bottle cap sculptures are one of the most capturing and beautiful creations ever to be realized. They are always worth a trip. The show in the Haus der Kunst Munich ends on June 28, 2019. Since it is organized in cooperation with the Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Kunstmuseum Bern and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, there will be plenty of occasions to see the artworks. We warmly recommend you to do so, and share your impressions and overall experience with us if so inclined.