Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
25.11 – 20.12.2017
In a masterstroke, Goodman Gallery wrapped up 2017 with exhibitions by the two most powerful artists in Africa: William Kentridge in Cape Town and El Anatsui in Johannesburg. The second of these, El Anatsui’s ‘Meyina’, represents the first major showing of the artist’s tapestry work on the African continent. Anatsui has enjoyed significant critical and commercial success since these chain mail tapestries made of bottle tops turned heads at the 2007 Venice Biennale.
‘Meyina’ is curated by Bisi Silva, the founder and artistic director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos. While Anatsui himself was not present to open the show last month, Silva was there to provide an insight into the Ghanaian born, Nigeria based creator of works that have intrigued and delighted audiences from Europe to America over the years, through their mix of aesthetic enchantment and pointed material selection. The exhibition also includes many personal ephemera from the artist’s archive, including handwritten emails, photostatted academic works on the history of slavery and exhibition catalogues from the many shows in which Anatsui has participated over the course of his career. This offers audiences who may only know him through his tapestry sculptures an insight into the history, preoccupations and development of his career.
Silva has previously curated shows of El Anatsui’s work and so for her the process of working with him is ongoing. “It’s great to be able to have this ongoing dialogue for like 20 years with the artist and to be able to tie the knots together with the different work, different languages, processes and stages in his life,” she says. For this exhibition Silva was keenly aware that “while there are few artists who are practicing seriously who wouldn’t know about El Anatsui…there’s also this distance as well and so you’re bringing those two elements together.” Silva reflects that the significance of the exhibition was not lost on her, “[T]he first solo show on the African continent of the metal sculptures is extremely important because it’s bringing it home…and maybe it will open up opportunities across the continent for the work to be seen so that we really take ownership of it.”
The sculptural tapestries have often been noted for their resemblance to traditional Ghanaian Kente fabrics – Anatsui has lived and worked at the University of Nsukka in Nigeria for 35 years – and Silva points out that his experiences there as a member of what has been termed the Nsukka group are pivotal to understanding the development of his work. Fellow Nsukka group member Uche Okeke was instrumental in breaking down the barriers between different departments and opening up fine art students to working across disciplines, so that, as Silva points out, Anatsui and his fellow artists “were experimenting with textiles, poetry, literature, painting…and engaging with traditional knowledge systems.” In fact it was Okeke who invited Anatsui to the university in the 1970s on a one year contract, which Silva jokes, “remained a one year contract for 35 years!” Ulism, the movement that was created out of these experiences, was “appropriated from the wall painting of traditional houses done by women – a little bit like Ndebele house painting – and you had this academic context that appropriated it and developed it into a modern and contemporary idiom.”
While Silva hopes that the ephemera included in the vitrines of the show will help to highlight these elements of Anatsui’s intellectual influences, she knows “that a local South African might not know all this history but I think that sometimes even if you don’t, there’s something about the work that seems significant beyond the beauty…They draw you in and by the time you get close you start seeing certain things and they start revealing themselves.”
Ultimately the appreciation of the works on a purely aesthetic level is difficult to deny. But with the added benefits of the personal ephemera and examples of some of Anatsui’s earlier wooden sculpture pieces, it becomes clear that the tapestry sculptures for which he has become so well-known are merely one aspect of a four decade career spent grabbling with issues of colonialism, artificially manufactured cultural differences and economic slavery that still speak to Africans across the continent today.
For the show’s curator, the final response is up to the audiences who walk into the Goodman, and is dependent on “the cultural capital that they bring in. Even if it’s just on the superficial level of looking at the beauty of the work as something made on a continent that’s always depicted in a negative and ugly level – that’s great. For those who are more engaged, I hope that they will really feel that the work is speaking about us to us and that’s really important. Finally, El Anatsui is a very quiet and personable as a person and an artist and if they can get a little insight into who he is as a person and an artist then that’s even better.” Of course, if audiences experience the show “on all three of those levels,” adds Silva, “then we’re in heaven.”