El Anatsui at MHCAM: A Retrospective

When I’m not moonlighting as a blogger and whiling away countless hours researching and/or fucking about on the internet, I’ve also been working as one of the curatorial interns at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, a job that is very near and dear to my heart. While my main job is to do research on new acquisitions, like most interns I do a hefty amount of odd-jobs, and more recently have also been working as both a receptionist and a guard within the museum. More about that another time.

El Anatsui: New Worlds installed at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum

El Anatsui: New Worlds installed at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum

If you were to enter the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum between January 21st and June 6th 2014, walk past the smiling student receptionist (maybe me!) in the main lobby and into the contemporary gallery and then hang a hard left into Carson gallery, you’d see them: Large, tapestry-like sculptures in shades of gold, black, red, copper, yellow, and silver would be draped elegantly on the wall, hit by the golden gallery lighting. Another, larger sculpture pools across the floor, adding shades of green into the mix. Upon closer inspection, you might look down to inspect what these metallic tapestries had been made of: Liquor bottle caps.

Wait, what?

One of the head guards and I talked about the exhibition recently, and with animated hand gestures and an expressive face she told me: “They told me the next exhibition was bottle cap sculptures and I was, like, ‘What?!’ But just that isn’t enough. You really have to see it.”

Later, as I was loitering around the gallery I overheard a visitor whisper to her friend “If you’d told me before to come look at bottle-cap sculptures I probably wouldn’t have come but now, oh, wow.”

Over the next few weeks I heard many comparisons, from fountains of gold coins to dragon skins. I watched people from the aforementioned older woman to a six year old boy who ran into the exhibition and then stopping dead in his tracks to yell “Wow!” Visitors of all types go into the exhibition and come out either smiling or lost in thought, I hadn’t heard a single negative comment the entire time I was there.

It seems visitors were in agreement: El Anatsui: New Worlds was a hit.

But first, a little background. El Anatsui is a sculptor from Ghana who does much of his work in Nigeria. He has taught at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and has had works displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the National Museum of African art, the Smithsonian, and elsewhere. The sculpture-types exhibited at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum (which draw inspiration from Ghanaian textiles, such as Kente cloth) have been in production for less than a decade, and he employs a workshop of young African men in order to produce the signature metal shapes.

The Artist, El Anatsui

The Artist, El Anatsui [x]

The exhibition, the brain-child of the museum director John Stomberg and professor Amanda Gilvin, consists of six large-scale sculptures by El Anatsui hung in two galleries. To accompany the sculptures and signs, a documentary plays about El Anatsui’s sculptures and instillations, showing his workshop process (the trailer for which can be seen on Youtube here.) The museum website says that “The works also build on the artist’s engagement with Africa’s global history. European traders introduced bottled liquor to the continent, and rum figured prominently in the triangle trade that brought so many enslaved Africans to the Americas. While humble, even seemingly inconsequential, these bits of detritus carry with them evidence of a painful legacy hundreds of years in the making.” [x]

Stomberg notes that “One of Anatsui’s great innovations is that the artist takes a step back once the work is done and lets those who install it take over.” [x] Each time they are hung, the sculptures look slightly different (contrast that with the new Judy Pfaff that the museum recently acquired, which came with a stencil so that you knew exactly where each component was supposed to hang.) You can see the instillation process for Mount Holyoke College Art Museum’s show on Flickr here.

El Anatsui, They Finally Broke the Pot of Wisdom Installed at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum

El Anatsui – They Finally Broke the Pot of Wisdom, 2012
Installed at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum [x]

Over the months that I have worked at the museum, the El Anatsui exhibition has been one of the biggest draws. It has been the subject of many class visits, student projects, and special tours, as well as an African Drumming event, a special lecture, multiple visit from K-12 children, and an unprecedented number of visitors. While working reception people would walk up to me and ask “Where is the El Anatsui?” more than almost any other question (apart from the pre-requisite “Where are the bathrooms?” of course.)

El Anatsui’s sculptures are something that every museum dreams of: a show that gets people through the door while remaining true to the museum’s message and goal of educating its visitors. And when I say it gets people through the door, I mean everyone. While working reception I watched a rather bored-looking woman in a wheelchair waiting for her daughter to get back from inside the galleries, after having stubbornly refused to go in with her, and then saw the girl barrel out into the front lobby, grasp the wheelchair while excitedly chattering: “No, grandma, I insist. You have to see this. You absolutely have to,  it’s breathtaking.”

Lo and behold, another twenty minutes later and the two women exited again, both all-smiles and excitedly talking about what an amazing show it was.

The El Anatsui sculptures are part of what I hope to be a more popular trend in the contemporary art world: accessible art. Rothkos and Kellys, Nicholsons and Maleviches are great works of art to an academic who understands their context or to the collector who knows their monetary value, but can they have the same effect as an Anatsui, where you can see the physical labor that went into it? Where you can’t brush it off as a talentless work? Where it is not elitist in its construction and obscure in its meaning? Where you can stand in the middle of the exhibition and look around you and be awestruck by the way that old meets new, the way that aesthetics meet politics? I don’t think so.

El Anatsui - New World Map, 2009

El Anatsui – New World Map, 2009

When the British museum acquired an El Anatsui sculpture, their beloved Scottish director Neil MacGregor referred to it as “a document of a particular contact between two cultures,” but I think MacGregor doesn’t go far enough. These works are not just a document to be studied, but the key to something that museums have been searching for since their public beginnings: popular art.

And before you start gabbing about Warhol, I mean popular art that isn’t a poisonous cultural stain meant to cash in on persona and “re-invent” an art world that is steadily losing touch with creativity and falling into bed with corporate fat-cats and cynicism.


The art world is changing. New price records for artists are set at every major auction and the art market, once dominated by so-called “art appreciators” and patrons, are now seen as a way to diversify one’s investment portfolio. By the same token, art is becoming a way to add status to the newly-wealthy in countries such as Russia and China, and thus the center of the art world is moving east. The new Louvre in Dubai might be the start of a new art world in which the centers are not in Paris, London, or New York but in Asia and the Middle East. Africa, where El Anatsui hails from, has also been experiencing economic growth at an unprecedented rate, and does not appear to be too far behind. Re-repatriation from major museums in the west will, presumably, also lead to a new flourishing of cultural centers and museums where local objects are returned.

El Anatsui is from Ghana, and it is perhaps most timely that his sculpture is gaining popularity during this globalization of the art world. Where the west is seen (rightfully) as a place with elitist patrons and artists who favor obscure abstraction, artists such as El Anatsui are producing art that is appreciated by everyone, not just those who could be writing a check for it.

The El Anatsui  works appeals on almost every level: it appeals to the visitor who is interested in artistic skill, as well as the visitors that want art that has an eco-friendly message, that has a global message, that has a black-empowerment message, that has a pro-Africa message, that has a historical sensibility. Equally it appeals to the visitor that wants something overwhelming in scale and yet attentive in detail, and the visitor who wants something you can walk around and explore.

El Anatsui - Amemo (Mask of Humankind) (detail), 2010

El Anatsui – Amemo (Mask of Humankind) (detail), 2010 [x]

I worked on various projects connecting to the exhibit, from helping to create a scavenger hunt game for local school children to printing and mounting display posters showing the different ways that these sculptures had been hung previously. I took and edited photographs of viewers, I watched more than one of my professors walk into the exhibition and leave entranced, I listened to the documentary on loop from my desk. I’m close to it, and whenever I hear El Anatsui mentioned outside of my work my heart leaps, but you don’t have to be that close to appreciate it.

You don’t have to be anything to appreciate it. You just have to be.

So, as the exhibit leaves us and I watch the sculptures come down in cascades of metallic splendor. I say goodbye to El Anatsui: New Worlds. I can only hope that museums will take note.


About Mary Rose

A student blogger with a passion for travel, tea, and the art world. I’m also a published short fiction and poetry writer, an amateur photographer, and a burgeoning wine snob.
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