Saturday, February 13, 2016

El Anatsui – Five Decades@Carriageworks
Exhibition (Mixed Media)

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

The Sydney Festival occurs every year. It is held between the 7th of January through to the 26th January – the latter date being “Australia Day” – the day on which the British took military control of Australia. In some indigenous circles it is viewed as ”invasion day”, a view about which I have some sympathy since I have always felt we should celebrate on a day which brings us together (such as Federation day, when we took control of our own destiny from the Brits) rather than a day which divides us because of race, creed or color.

Logo of the Sydney Festival.

This year was the fortieth year of celebrations and so there was lots to see and experience from music to theatre and dance, opera, classical events, circus and cabaret performances, installations and exhibitions etc. - far too many events to list here in any detail. The festival’s director, Lieven Bertels, comes from Belgium. After his successful first Sydney Festival in 2013, Bertels' contract was extended to include the 2016 festival.

Just one of many events at the Sydney Festival in 2016.

One of the Sydney Festival events was El Anatsui’s “Five Decades” exhibition held at Carriageworks from the 7th January to the 6th March, 2016. Carriageworks began its life as the Eveleigh Rail Yards. It was built on the site from 1880 to 1889, which included the heritage listed Carriageworks site. These buildings are one of the best examples of railway workshop complexes and so documents the history of Australia’s major rail network and the thousands of Sydney-siders who worked here during the 19th Century. Train carriages for Sydney’s rail network were built from scratch and maintained within the building. Carriages built here included the Royal Carriages constructed specifically for the Governor General and visiting Royalty, the very first electric carriage and the first air-conditioned train in Australia.

Entrance to Carriageworks.

From 1973 productivity at the site declined due to its ineffective older buildings and increased privatization of construction. The site was eventually closed in 1988. In June 2002 the NSW Ministry for the Arts completed the purchase of the Carriage and Blacksmith Workshops at the Eveleigh Rail Yards site.

“El Anatsui” exhibition end of Carriageworks.

Soon after the purchase a construction project on the site commenced under the name of Carriageworks. The vision for Carriageworks was that it would become an artistic hub where creative work would be explored, developed, commissioned and presented. Adaptive reuse of the workshop site began in 2003 with the housing of numerous contemporary arts practitioners. Carriageworks was officially opened in 2007.

The central foyer and cafe (back end) of Carriageworks.

I hope you enjoy my rendition of El Anatsui’s - “Five Decades” - exhibition.

El Anatsui Biography[1]
El Anatsui was born in Anyako, Ghana, in 1944, and studied at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, receiving a BA from the College of Art, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Art Education. Anatsui had a long and distinguished teaching career, beginning at the University of Winneba, Ghana (1969–75) and spending close to four decades working at the University of Nigeria Nsukka (1975–2011).

"El Anatsu Art and Life" by Susan Mullin Vogel explores the artist’s themes of loss and decay, his Nigerian University intellectual community, and his creative studio practice. Vogel traces the intertwined threads of Anatsui's ideas, life and art from his youthful searching and desire to express Africa's history to today's work that can be immense and ethereal.

Since the late 1970s Anatsui has held many solo exhibitions around the world including the major exhibitions Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, Akron Art Museum, Akron, Ohio; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Des Moines Art Center, Iowa; Bass Museum of Art, Miami, USA (2012–14), and El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote To You About Africa, organized by the Museum for African Art, New York, USA; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada; Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts; Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina; Denver Art Museum, Colorado; University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, (2010-12).

El Anatsui at the exhibition of Gravity and Grace.

He has been featured in many international exhibitions, currently including, Atopolis: WIELS @ Mons 2015, Manège de Sury, Mons, Belgium, 2015 and The Contemporary 2: Who Interprets the World? At the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan, 2015.

Large-scale public installations include Broken Bridge II, commissioned by High Line Art and presented by Friends of the High Line (2012-2013) and Tsiatsia – Searching for Connection, which was installed on the façade of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2013.

In 2015 Anatsui was honored with a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale.

Venice Biennale's Golden Lion Award.

Anatsui’s works are held in many public and private collections including The British Museum, London, UK; Centre Georges Pomipdou, Paris, France; De Young Museum, San Francisco, USA; Fowler Museum, University of California, Los Angeles, USA; French Cultural Centre, Lagos, Nigeria; Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, UAE; Jordan National Gallery of Arts, Amman, Jordan; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., USA; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA; The National Gallery of Art, Lagos, Nigeria; The Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Osaka Foundation of Culture, Osaka, Japan.

El Anatsui – Five Decades@Carriageworks[1]
”Human life is constantly in a state of change … I want my artwork to replicate that experience” El Anatsui.

Anatsui is recognized as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists, having been awarded the esteemed Gold Lion award at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Categorically undefinable, Anatsui’s work combines the history and trajectory of abstract art with the local vernacular of Ghana and Nigeria.

Lisa Havilah, Director of Carriageworks, said: “El Anatsui: Five Decades is an ambitious project and reflects Carriageworks commitment to presenting the most ambitious contemporary art from around the world in Australia. This major exhibition continues our annual series presenting the major installations by the most exciting international visual artists working today.”

Lisa Havilah, Director of Carriageworks.

Five Decades displays the artist’s early propensity to merge traditional styles with contemporary art and current issues. From the earliest works in Five Decades to the most recent, a number of key themes run through Anatsui’s practice. The artist reveals an awareness of the fragility and transience of existence; a belief that damaged or discarded objects can be transformed into something new; a working method that incorporates multiple sources and parts to form a whole; and the importance of language as a metaphor to expand the interpretation of art.

“El Anatsui is one of the world’s great artists and it is an honor to be presenting these remarkable works in Carriageworks’ unique spaces. We hope the audiences of Sydney and beyond relish this very special experience,” continues Beatrice Gralton, Visual Arts Curator, Carriageworks.

Beatrice Gralton, in front of Carriageworks' giant ode to the "Rage" music-video show.

Five Decades demonstrates Anatsui’s ingenuity in working with repurposed materials including wood, aluminium printing plates, tin boxes and liquor bottle tops. In 1998 the chance discovery of a garbage bag of Nigerian alcohol bottle tops presented him with a new material with which he could produce an extraordinary range of effects. Flattened, folded and bound together with copper wire, the labels from whiskey, wine, rum, gin, brandy, vodka and schnapps – all produced in West Africa – reflected the stories of cultural exchange, consumption, colonialism and migration particular to the continent. The shimmering palette of these labels and evocative brand names including Dark Sailor, King Solomon, 007, Chairman and Makossa also added a new kind of graphic element to Anatsui’s work.

Many of Anatsui’s early ceramics, prints and sculptures incorporate West African adrinka symbols within their surfaces. Anatsui’s adaptions of the rich visual culture of Africa reaffirm that art is never stagnant nor determined, but rather it is part of the changing rhythm of contemporary life. While many of his later works are monumental in scale, they are also handmade, shaped by human touch and individuality. From the walls to the floor the objects unfurl, expansive rather than confined they suggest the contours of landscape, cartography, and the language of abstract painting.

Five Decades probes the histories of colonial and post-colonial Africa alongside themes of consumption, exchange and renewal and the limitless beauty found in the everyday. Anatsui’s art presents a coming together of cultures, artistic traditions and contemporary life. El Anatsui: Five Decades is a Schwartz Carriageworks project in association with the Sydney Festival.

All works courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, USA. All photographs below in this post were taken by Marie-Therese Wisniowski.

Awakened (2012)
Found aluminium and copper wire.

Awakened (full view).

Awakened (detailed view).

Awakened (detailed view).

Adrinka Sasa (2003)
Fabric, aluminium and copper wire.

Adrinka Sasa has been constructed with the flattened bottle tops and belongs to the Gawu group, an important series of eleven works made from 2001 - 2004. Ambitious in scale and intense in color Adrinka Sasa is one of the only works by Anatasui that directly references the adrinka symbols, often stamped onto dyed cloth made by the Akan peoples of Ghana. Usually dyed black, brown or red, the dark cloth is worn during a period of mourning. The Ewe word sasa can be translated as “patchwork”. However, notably absent from Adrinka Sasa are the adrinka symbols, rather the association is abstracted, an indirect mourning of the division of Africa by European colonisers.

Adrinka Sasa (full view).

Adrinka Sasa (detailed view).

Adrinka Sasa (detailed view).

Tiled Flower Garden (2012)
Aluminium and copper wire.

“I thought of the objects as link between my continent, Africa, and the rest of Europe. Objects such as these were introduced to Africa by Europeans when they came as traders. Alcohol was one of the commodities brought with them to exchange for goods in Africa. Eventually alcohol became one of the items used in the transatlantic slave trade. They made rum in the West Indies, took it to Liverpool, and then it made its way back to Africa. I thought the bottle caps had a strong reference to the history of Africa.” – El Anatsui.

Titled Flower Garden (full view).

Titled Flower Garden (overhead view).

Titled Flower Garden (close-up of center of the artwork).

Titled Flower Garden (detailed view).

Titled Flower Garden (detailed view).

Titled Flower Garden (detailed view).

Waste Paper Bags (2004 - 2010)
Printed plates (aluminium) and copper.

Anatsui is part of a community that trades and purchases scrap aluminium and other metals. The materials he uses would not have been thrown away, rather collected, sorted and sold at a specialty market. Waste Paper Bags has been constructed from used aluminium printing plates, many of which are obituary notices. Anatsui has melted and moulded the plates to take a new form, an unusable receptacle for an unknown waste, covered with tributes to individual lives.

Waste Paper Bags (full view).

Waste Paper Bags (close-up view).

Waste Paper Bags (detailed view).

Womb of Time (2014)
Aluminium and copper.

Womb of Time (full view).

Womb of Time (detailed view).

Blema (2006)
Found aluminium and copper wire.

Blema (full view).

Blema (close-up view).

Blema (detailed view).

Drainpipe (2010)
Aluminium and copper wire.

Drainpipe (full view).

Drainpipe (detailed view).

Stressed (2011)
Found aluminium and copper wire.

Stressed (full view).

Stressed (detailed view).

Stressed (detailed view).

Garden Wall (2011)
Aluminium and copper wire.

Garden Wall, Stressed World and Trains of Thought II all display the techniques Anatsui has developed with bottle top lids. Geometric patterns contrast with open passages that resemble nets and densely folded rosettes radiate to form concentric circles. When seen together the physicality of these works provoke a visceral response, like a skin they are clotted and encrusted, aged and stretched.

Garden Wall (full view).

Garden Wall (detailed view).

[1] Carriageworks’ media release (2016).

No comments: