Artist Makes Discards Beautiful in New Blanton Exhibit

Around 4,000 Austinites will flock to The Blanton Museum of Art today for Austin Museum Day, an event that features free exhibitions and trolley rides between participating venues.

The $0 pricetag may be enticing, but museumgoers should really head to the Blanton for one reason: to view the visually spectacular When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, a retrospective opening today of contemporary African artist El Anatsui.

The Nigeria-based Ghanaian sculptor has spent the last four decades experimenting with a variety of media—everything from wood, ceramics, paint, and most famously, discarded items like bottle caps—to create works that have been shown internationally.

In fact, Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, the Blanton’s deputy director, calls Anatsui one of the top 10 working artists of today—just one of the reasons she was drawn to this career-long retrospective.

How the Blanton came to display When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, however, is actually a tale of pure luck, according to Carlozzi. It led UT’s art museum to offer the only showing of this exhibit in the Southwest.

“Originally, the exhibit was supposed to open at The New York Museum of Art and was completely booked nationwide,” Carlozzi says. “I happened to call the curator right when their building construction was delayed. It was quite serendipitous.”

When I Last Wrote to You About Africa is the first compilation of Anatsui’s 35-year presence in the field of contemporary art. He gained international acclaim for his tapestry-like large wall installations made out of discarded items like bottle caps and product labels; he designed these to look like cloth, which is a revered material in Africa at large and within Ghana, his home country.

The Blanton has had one such art installation hanging on the second floor since 2007, a gift from the artist himself. The staff at the Blanton had gone the last four years telling museumgoers the work was untitled. To their surprise, when El Anatsui arrived in Austin to preview the collection, he anointed it Seepage. It remains on display upstairs during the exhibit.

“We wanted to give El’s work some sort of context,” Carlozzi said. “By leaving it upstairs, visitors can see it side-by-side with other contemporary artists—in a global arena—and not just think, ‘Oh, he’s a great African artist.’”

El Anatsui is passionate about bringing out the artist in each of the curators as well, allowing them to infuse his pieces with their own personal style. Each piece can be configured in may different formations—the tapestries can be bunched to the curator’s liking—so each exhibition is a bit different from the last.

One of the most interesting pieces in the show, Open(ing) Market, is a series of 1,700 painted tin boxes, adorned by brand and product labels, that is designed to evoke the emotions of an energetic market morning.

But the truly cant-miss part of the exhibit is hard to overlook: the theme of unity. Whether it be the juxtaposition of Bible and Quran excerpts or the use of three different African languages, El Anatsui combines cultures in a hopeful, poignant tribute to a common ground—something Carlozzi thinks everyone will relate to.

“His works are completely accessible because they are so ravishing,” she says. “There are very few beautiful things in the world, and El gives us just that.”

When I Last Wrote to You About Africa will be on display at the Blanton until Jan. 22, 2012.

Images of work by El Anatsui: Sacred Moon. Photo courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery. Untitled. Photo courtesy Museum for African Art/Jerry L/ Thompson. 


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