Throughout his career Ghanaian artist El Anatsui has experimented with a variety of media, including wood, ceramics and paint. Most recently, he has focused on discarded metal objects, hundreds or even thousands of which are joined together to create truly remarkable works of art. Anatsui indicates that the word gawu (derived from Ewe, his native language) has several potential meanings, including "metal" and "a fashioned cloak." The term, therefore, manages to encapsulate the medium, process and format of the works on view, reflecting the artist's transformation of discarded materials into objects of striking beauty and originality.
The metal fragments that constitute the raw material of Anatsui's work have had a profound impact on the West African societies that use, reuse and finally discard them. Several of his metal "cloths" are constructed with aluminum wrappings from the tops of bottles that once contained spirits from local distilleries. The three-dimensional sculptures are made of the discarded tops of evaporated milk tins, rusty metal graters and old printing plates, all gathered in and around Nsukka, Nigeria, where the artist has lived and worked for the last 28 years.
Drawing on the aesthetic traditions of his native Ghana and adopted Nigeria, as well as contemporary Western forms of expression, Anatsui's works engage the cultural, social and economic histories of West Africa. Through their associations, his humble metal fragments provide a commentary on globalization, consumerism, waste and the transience of people's lives in West Africa and beyond. Their re-creation as powerful and transcendent works of art--many of which recall traditional practices and art forms--suggests as well the power of human agency to alter such harmful patterns.
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El Anatsui: Gawu is an Oriel Mostyn Gallery touring exhibition and was generously supported by the Arts Council of Wales. Additional funding was provided by Wales Arts International. The exhibition text was developed by the Fowler Museum at UCLA and Oriel Mostyn Gallery.