Famous Ghanaian artist El Anatsui's work on show in Joburg

Jono Cane tells you why you should check the new 'Meyina' exhibit out

28 November 2017 - 12:49 By Jono Cane
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Artist El Anatsui.
Artist El Anatsui.
Image: Art21

In my pre-internet childhood what I learned about art history I learned from degraded B&W photostats and miscellaneous slides, and the very occasional school field trip to the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Consequently, the particular exhilaration of facing an artwork in full colour and at full size is sometimes - surely not always - obliterating.

I remember the morning in New York at the Metropolitan Museum when I first saw an El Anatsui. I was travelling alone, two weeks in monk-like silence, broken only by requests for pancakes or hotdogs. My visceral response to Between Earth and Heaven, the iconic Anatsui drape hanging in the Rockefeller Wing for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, was: What is a contemporary artwork like this one doing in the wing for Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas?

Surrounded by - and profoundly at odds with - exquisite pre-Columbian feather wall hangings and funerary carvings, Anatsui's installation had been ethnologised.

Ghana-born artist El Anatsui's masterpiece 'Inventory'.
Ghana-born artist El Anatsui's masterpiece 'Inventory'.
Image: Supplied

I felt then, as I do now, how stupid the curators had been in their ill-advised intellectual gesture. I was in equal parts angry and amazed; angry at the art world and amazed by this gigantic masterpiece in front of which I was throwing an art hissy fit. What an unambiguously beautiful and moving backdrop for a confusing and ambiguous moment.

The pleasure in savouring my righteous anger was interrupted, rudely, by an ordinary kind of woman and her ordinary daughter - tourists - with a request to shoot a holiday picture of them in front of this Anatsui artwork. They could not have known that the internal dialogue I was busy having with the curators at the Met was second only to the lecture I would love to give to a person who thought that a golden El Anatsui was an appropriate background to their holiday album.

The pleasure of Anatsui's work is how it can alter the scale of your relationship with yourself. It is not that his huge textiles are backdrops to our lives. It is quite the opposite: if we're lucky, for a small moment, the artwork can put us in proportion; our petty, small and stupid ideas, our vanity, our certainty, our self-publicising can be overwhelmed by something literally larger than us.


Meyina marks the first solo exhibition of El Anatsui — one of the most influential contemporary artists working today — in South Africa.

Over the past four decades, Anatsui has created a vast body of work that has expanded the language of contemporary sculpture in Africa and around the world.

Meyina (meaning “I am going” in Ewe) is curated by Bisi Silva (director at the Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos) and presents a portrait of the artist by bringing together disparate fragments that form a whole.

The seven large-scale sculptural installations are composed of thousands of crumpled pieces of metal sourced from local alcohol recycling stations and bound together with copper wire. Exploring the notion of a limitless horizon, the works are simultaneously luminous and weighty, meticulously fabricated yet malleable.

Alongside these major works is a collection of archival objects — selected by Silva from Anatsui’s studio, study and library in Nsukka, Nigeria.

El Anatsui was born in Ghana in 1944 and has lived in Nsukka since 1975. This year Anatsui was awarded the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Award - Goodman Gallery

El Anatsui's exhibition, 'Meyina', is currently on at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and runs until December 20.

• This article was originally published in The Times.

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