El Anatsui’s art reworks materials, memories : Ghanaian artist has first solo exhibit in Korea at Barakat Gallery

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El Anatsui’s art reworks materials, memories : Ghanaian artist has first solo exhibit in Korea at Barakat Gallery



A sculpture that looks like a massive golden curtain with folds and drapes is now hanging across two walls of Barakat Gallery’s first floor on Samcheong-ro in central Seoul. Woven with numerous small metal pieces, gleaming mostly in gold and partly in silver, red and chrome yellow, the sculpture might remind the viewers of diverse things ranging from ancient armor to temple mosaics and ceremonial royal robes.

But the magnificent wall sculpture is not made of old precious metal. It is made mainly of used aluminum bottle caps crumpled and folded into square slices and bound together with copper wire.

The sculpture “Skylines?” by the internationally-acclaimed Ghanaian artist El Anatsui is part of his first solo exhibition in Korea, which kicked off on Tuesday. Two additional large-scale pieces in the artist’s signature style, often dubbed metal tapestries, are on display in its basement floor. And six prints are hanging along with the sculptures.

El Anatsui, who was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement by the 2015 Venice Biennale, has a studio in his home country’s neighbor, Nigeria, as he worked as a professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria located in Nsukka.


El Anatsui’s “Dzi II,” also made of numerous aluminium bottle caps and copper wire, is part of the solo exhibition. [MOON SO-YOUNG]

In the studio, he has been collaborating with his neighbors in gathering used objects and transforming them for use in artworks. The materials the artist uses include not only the bottle caps for the metal tapestries he started to create in 1999 but also the traditional wooden trays of West Africa he used in the early days of his career, railway sleepers, driftwood and iron nails.

“I work with the materials used by humans,” El Anatsui, 73, told Korean reporters in a preview at the gallery on Tuesday. “These materials keep some kind of human energy remaining in them ... and the memories [of the users] and the history.”

Asked if his works are regarded as some kind of recycling or junk art, he explained, “It is using things from your circumstances and environment, just like children that make toys with things around them. Then, the artworks [made of such things] become references to your environment - your culture.”

“Many materials I use are related to eating, feeding and nurturing,” he added. “I try to understand the meaning of the materials in that context.”

Asked about whether the warm colors of his bottle-cap sculptures such as gold and red have special meaning, the artist said, smiling, “I cannot decide the colors. The found objects decide the colors. But I recognize that many of them have warm colors and think they might reflect the region’s sunny weather throughout the year, the warmth of the region.”

El Anatsui’s works can be said to be weaving together fragments of the contemporary culture and environment of the region where he lives and people’s memories, which are entwined with the materials.

That is related to the artist’s desire to find the real culture of his home, West Africa, which was colonized and westernized, while at the same time going beyond the limitations of what is unique to Africa.

That is also a concern of contemporary Korean artists.

“This is my second time to Korea and first time to Seoul; When I was invited to the Gwangju Biennale [in 2004], I met some Korean artists along with many artists from around the world,” El Anatsui said. “We share a history in that we once were colonies and share similar concerns.

“When I was in school, I was not introduced to my culture very much - African culture in a Westernized education,” he said. “Then, as an artist, I realized something was missing and began to find it.”

Still, he does not want his works to be associated only with being African, but also to produce diverse impressions and interpretations from the viewers.

One of the artist’s metal tapestries on exhibit has the name “Dzi II.” He explained, “The word dzi in the Ewe language [used in southeastern Ghana] has many diverse meanings, depending on the tones with which the word is said.”

“The artist leaves even the installation of his works open,” said Park So-hyeon, chief curator of the gallery. “He lets the variable sculptures take different forms every time they are installed.”

Anatsui’s works are among the collections of many important museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul.

BY MOON SO-YOUNG [symoon@joongang.co.kr]

The exhibition runs through Nov. 26. Admission is free. Go to Anguk Station, line No. 3, exit 2, and walk 10 minutes. For details, visit www.barakat.kr or call (02)730-1949.
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