February 22, 2016

By Patrick Hartigan, 20 FEB 2016

A major show of Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui’s opulent sculptures folds and weaves scrap metals with ancient histories.

One morning a few months ago, while drinking a cup of coffee, I awakened to the reason a close friend of mine always makes a certain sucking noise while sipping hot drinks. I had always put it down to the heat of the liquid but suddenly I saw things differently. I was drinking my coffee from a fairly thick-rimmed cup – a vessel that made the liquid more prone to escaping between the rim and my lower lip. What disturbed me most about these little mishaps was the way I was compelled to constantly lick the cup clean. That morning, after licking a spill, I instinctively sucked at the next sip, a measure that eliminated further spillage.

Suddenly I saw a system or habit in place that – when intersected by a mishap, a chance thought or event – produced an accompanying moment of lucidity and a new development to that system.

Systems in art develop in motley ways and are often precipitated by chance occurrences and encounters. In 1988 Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui found a garbage bag of bottle tops in Nsukka, Nigeria, where he has lived for the past 40 years. Since then, he has created an intricate system of flattening and weaving these bits of metal into works of unusual grandeur. Anatsui works with systems that could easily lead to dull and predictable outcomes. They succeed, in my mind, according to the artist’s sensitivity and openness to the particular, indeterminate and fluid qualities of their materiality. It’s unsurprising to learn that Anatsui once played the trumpet in a university jazz band: his works have the quality of musical improvisation, most significantly taking shape, being given rhythm and oxygen, during their moment of installation.

Awakened (2012), the first work to greet us in El Anatsui: Five Decades, his exhibition at Schwartz Carriageworks in Sydney until March 6, drapes to the floor with a wonderful elegance – both a sign of things to come and a cadence quite its own. Its incompleteness spills to the floor, a kimono in ecstasy. The exhibition is the first in a five-year program of public exhibitions supported by Anna Schwartz, whose husband publishes this paper.

Closely inspecting Awakened, one finds hundreds of small, carefully folded and twisted pieces of aluminium, tied together with copper wire. Words and graphics of different liquor brands – Flying Horse, Pilot, Squad 5, 007, Headmaster, Seaman’s – reveal the carefully tweaked choir of this exhalation.

Around the corner, Adinkra Sasa (2003), a large patchwork of predominantly black-painted metal, hangs equally impressively and tactfully, its bottom just hitting the floor. On first glance it has the topography of a giant chocolate wrapper. With a bit of distance, the surface ripples with the enthralling and ominous shimmer of crude oil, or still-glowing volcanic lava. The work in fact references Akan mourning cloth. Normally stamped with adinkra symbols, this metal cloth mourns other histories through its incorporation of a substance once at the centre of the transatlantic slave trade.

The terrain these pieces find themselves in is a favourable one. Anatsui’s works sit engagingly in the time-ravaged surroundings of this once industrial site, which has recently become a hub of artistic activity. The stratified layers of paint and burn marks on the walls, and the giant limbs of metallic infrastructure, seem the ideal setting in which to highlight a process of transforming scrap metal into opulent splendour. Anatsui and the exhibition’s curator, Beatrice Gralton, have done a fine job in letting these works speak to, rather than conceal, these unique gallery spaces. I found it worthwhile to take the lift up to a viewing platform from where one can take in the broader habitat.