Getting into the Woodwork

As an art history student at UNC–Chapel Hill, I have always enjoyed learning about new types of art and new artists. However, my tastes until recently were pretty narrow. I stuck mainly to European art, was always drawn to paintings, and never really took the time to research beyond what I was taught in class. Last semester I decided to broaden my horizons by taking a course on African art, and it has turned out to be one of my favorites—mainly because of the short section on El Anatusi. Shown on the huge projector screen at the front of the lecture hall, the images of his dazzling metal wall hangings took my breath away. So I rightly expected these works to blow me away when I walked into the exhibition.

What I didn’t expect was to be equally, if not more, amazed by the artist’s wooden sculptures.

Like his metal pieces, Anatsui’s wooden works are intricate, beautiful, and imbued with a profound symbolism that relates not only to African culture but to humanity as a whole. I was most awed, however, by the way they echo the wall hangings’ sense of movement and dynamism. Wood loses all of its stiffness and takes on an energetic, lifelike quality: the sculptures that refer to cloth appear to crumple and fold, and another, titled Imbroglio, seems to be actually writhing.

These wooden treasures excited me in a way that sculptures rarely had before. I now have a more open mind about art and look forward to taking many more non-Western courses. I also recognize how important it is to take a deeper look into an artist’s body of work, because sometimes your favorite piece may not be the most well known. Finally, I see how even the most unexpected materials can be turned into something incredibly beautiful—and this, I think, was exactly El Anatsui’s goal in the first place.

—Elana Hain, an art history student at UNC–Chapel Hill and a curatorial intern at the NCMA, is working this summer on research for upcoming contemporary art exhibitions.

Image: El Anatsui, When I Last Wrote to You about Africa, 1986, wood, Private collection, Germany

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