One of the most striking pieces in the North Carolina Museum of Art’s permanent collection is a relatively recent acquisition; a large elegant wall mounted sculpture titled Lines That Link Humanity by the Ugandan born artist El Anatsui who now lives in Nigeria. It’s a piece that continues to engage viewers well beyond the work’s premiere which coincided with the opening of NCMA’s West Building in 2010.
In keeping with the innovative spirit of that specific commission, which was all about bringing cutting edge work to the area museum going public, NCMA now brings us When I Last Wrote to You about Africa, a 40 year survey of El Anatsui’s work. Make the trek over to the East Building next time you visit NCMA as this is a sparkling show and well in keeping with a key mission of the museum: namely bridging work in the permanent collection with ongoing significant exhibitions of contemporary art. It is also a travelling tour de force, deftly curated by the Museum for African Art‘s Lisa Binder and significant as MAA’s first travelling show dedicated to a single artist. Most powerfully the exhibition does a marvelous job of revealing the intricacies and facets of El Anatsui’s oeuvre which a quick walk through of the gallery will reveal in an instant.
El Anatsui’s impact is now a significant one on the contemporary global art scene -emanating from his 2007 breakthrough at the Venice Biennale- and a prominent strength of his work resides in its ability to not only function at the highest levels of the global art biennial circuit but to also resonate beyond the art world and extend down to the most individual aspects of contemporary life. We are all after all now participants in the global marketplace like it or not.
A particular fascination for me is El Anatsui’s engagement with local art students whom he now employs to help execute the work. (El is a recently retired faculty member from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka [UNN] so it’s fair to say he has a finger on the pulse of the local art student population.) An especially rewarding portion of the show is the video gallery which shows both El and his employees at work in video snippets, compiling, assembling and evaluating various sculptures. The videos are brief and not to be missed. The show has a broad spectrum of El Anatsui’s work: paintings, early wood carvings, ceramics and drawings. But the large wall mounted sculptures have become his signature and they are a compelling mix of the hand made- intricate and vast tapestry like woven linkages of scavenged bottle tops, aluminum can pull tabs and various container fragments- rife with broader overtones of community involvement, aspects of the self and identity. It is not too much of an intellectual stretch to envision how African history and tradition, colonialism and the global marketplace inform the work. Curator Binder’s introduction in the catalog sums up the work’s influences best I think. ”The vocabulary of El Anatsui’s work is inextricably bound to the materials involved in exchanges between the singular-self and group-other. Although individually humble they become collectively monumental.”
A quick final note: NCMA’s exhibit design is also striking in and of itself. (The installation in fact warranted approval from curator Binder at the show’s press preview as she particularly made note of the gallery’s striking green paint scheme and it’s appropriateness to many of El’s color schemes.) While the West Building has garnered the lion share of NCMA attention lately and deservedly so, this show proves that the reliable old East Building still can have a few exhibit tricks up its sleeve.
The Raleigh stop of El Anatsui’s When I Last Wrote to You about Africa is on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art through July 29, 2012.