El Anatsui Offers A Golden Getaway at the ROM
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El Anatsui Offers A Golden Getaway at the ROM

As we dive into autumn and find our days getting shorter and darker, you may find yourself in need of a warm and golden presence. Luckily, the ROM’s new exhibition is the antidote to gloom.
The Institute for Contemporary Culture (ICC)—the ROM’s resoundingly relevant steward of contemporary concerns and community outreach—presents When I Last Wrote to You about Africa, a four-decade retrospective of the work of El Anatsui. The show is having its world premiere in Toronto before heading to the yet unopened Museum For African Art in New York City.
El Anatsui, born in Ghana, now teaches sculpture at the University of Nigeria. He has gained world-wide attention and acclaim for his hanging tapestries, which Francisco Alvarez, the Managing Director of the ICC, described as “large shimmering metallic wall sculptures that are made of discarded bottle tops of liquor bottles.” Alvarez went on to explain that the artist’s work “often deals with the transformation of humble, locally available materials. What he does is he imbues them with beauty and meaning.”

The exhibition features nine of these bottle-cap wall sculptures, and close investigation reveals an incredibly painstaking process, as the caps are woven together with twisted copper wire. Standing back, however, is to suspend disbelief of their modest materials. They hover somewhere in between a waterfall and a rock face. Sometimes monumental in scale, their rippling surfaces suggest topographic maps and mountain ranges seen from afar. Their fragmented golds and silvers are like sunlight reflecting off water.
The show also features floor sculptures, wood pieces, drawings, and paintings which help round out the portrait of an artist with a love of patterns, repetition, and a vivid colour sensibility.
Anatsui delights in the act of exhibiting his works. Peak Project is made from the lids of Peak brand milk cans which are connected by wire to create two-by-four-foot squares. The exhibition’s installer gets to decide how to arrange and display them. At the ROM, they have gone with Anatsui’s preferred composition—a series of small pointed mounts that playfully reference the brand name of the milk. In this installation, however, the piece reveals itself to be much more than wordplay. The shining gold disks are piled atop a dark green-blue base, and it has the feeling of pirate’s treasure seen through the distortion of deep water…elusive and ancient.
Also unique to each exhibition are the placement, size, and shape of the folds of Anatsui’s wall sculptures. An arrangement that best suits the exhibition space is decided during the installation by the artist in collaboration with the installers. This spatial responsiveness creates a dialogue between the gallery and the artworks, and contributes to their stunning impact.
In conjunction with El Anatsui’s exhibition, the ICC also presents Walls and Barriers: A Collaborative Project, a community engagement initiative that involves over five-hundred youth from across the GTA. Anatsui’s work sometimes deals with the notion of impassable structures or walls. In the artist’s words, “walls are opaque to the eyes but transparent to the imagination.” Each participant was given ten-by-twelve-inch sheets of clear acrylic, and asked to make artworks inspired by the barriers that they face in their own lives. Hung in grids in the ROM’s Canada Court, the panels become walls themselves.
El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa opens tomorrow, October 2, and runs until January 2, 2011. The exhibition is part of the ROM’s Nuit Blanche offerings, and can be seen free of charge during the event.
Walls and Barriers is currently on display, and runs until October 23, 2010.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.