All the Materials

The exhibition El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa (open through July 29) is a retrospective, and sometimes I think these are the best kind of exhibitions. They offer us insight into the career of an artist and a chance to glimpse a broad span of development in a very special way. It is almost as though you can see a mind at work.

This exhibition does just that. Throughout his career El Anatsui has used a multitude of materials, and it is through their use that we can see thoughts emerging and forming. We can see these thoughts are not random or fleeting. Ideas and images of the artist’s life and culture are consistently involved.

On view now are works made with a wide variety of materials and techniques. Wood has been carved, assembled, painted, and burned. Metals and fabrics are brought together and blended. Acrylic paints are applied to Masonite and paper and wood. These paints have been applied in a loose and running style—and in other works he uses a more controlled technique and precise style. There are works of ink on paper that relate to works he made in other mediums. One example of this, titled Omen, is part of a series of drawings from 1980 and 1981 exhibited next to a work of the same title made of ceramic and manganese in 1978.

El Anatsui produced other drawings in the more esoteric method of drypoint and aquatint. These are exhibited next to a wall sculpture woven together with aluminum and copper wire. Very different, both are equally beautiful and demonstrate a mastery of materials.

The depth and breadth of materials in this exhibition is impressive, and all are held together by the steady, focused vision of El Anatsui.

—Kathryn Briggs led the design production team for the El Anatsui exhibition.

El Anatsui, Omen, 1978, ceramic, H. 15 1⁄2 x W. 21 x D. 16 1⁄2 in., Photo courtesy Museum for African Art / Kelechi Amadi-Obi

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