At the de Young, a Stunning Work of Recycled Bottle Tops

Categories: Arts

ElAnatsui.jpg
Courtesy of de Young Museum
El Anatsui's Hovor II
The woman sauntered up to the giant wall hanging called Hovor II, inspected its connecting pieces, then sat down on a nearby bench to get a more expansive view. Every five minutes or so, the pattern was the same on the second floor of the de Young Museum: Surprise. Inspection. Survey from afar. I witnessed that pattern this week, soon after speaking to the artist who created Hovor II from the tops of old liquor bottles.

El Anatsui (his full name) specializes in recycled materials, but his works of art - from a distance, anyway - seem to incorporate pristine materials. Hovor II looks like a giant screen of gold and bronze, as if it came straight from Gustav Klimt's painting The Kiss, but on close perusal, the names of Nigerian liquor tabs are evident everywhere. "Old Mac Deluxe Whisky," "Perfect Dry Gin" and "Eastern Distilleries And Food Industries" say many of the small pieces that make up Hovor II.


Anatsui's creation, which has been at the de Young since the museum reopened in 2005, is one of his many signature hanging sculptures that are now exhibited worldwide. Any survey of major African artists includes Anatsui, who was born in Ghana and makes his home in southeastern Nigeria. In two months, a major exhibit of Anatsui's work ("El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa") opens in Toronto before taking a two-year tour of the United States, with stops in New York; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Denver. San Francisco isn't on the itinerary, but the de Young is fortunate to have Hovor II in its permanent collection. The sculpture means "Cloth of Value" in Anatsui's native Ewe language.

"Naturally, you want your ideas to get across to people, and if one's work is in demand and communicating with people, it gives one a good feeling." Anatsui, 66, says in a phone interview from Nsukka, Nigeria, where he's a professor at the University of Nigeria.

Through his work, Anatsuis says, he's trying to "provide an assist for the eyes of people . . . to actually try and read their minds." Anatsui means that museum-goers often react to his work with a fixed idea in mind, almost like they're experiencing déjà vu. There is something universal, almost archetypal, in Anatsui's renderings. Anatsui borrows from the traditions of West African textiles, with their interlocking patterns, but he ratchets up the size, employs discarded objects that give his creations a shimmering veneer, then has the sculpture hang loosely from a wall or other surface, which creates more folds and bulges that give the work a feel of otherworldly architecture.

Hovor II measures about 15 feet by 15 feet, and has tens of thousands of tabs that approximate the size of bubblegum sticks. In his Nigeria workshop, Anatsui has 15 or so assistants who help him on projects. Many of his university students have been inspired to work as professional artists, and forgers in West Africa (especially Nigeria and Ghana) have tried to pass off work as genuine Anatsuis - an indication of his still-growing stature in the international art world. At a Sotheby's auction in 2008, an Anatsui sculpture sold for more than $500,000. Anatsui is cautious about his work being categorized as "African art." At the de Young, Hovor II is positioned at the edge of the museum's African Art collection - not quite in it, not quite apart from it.

" 'African art' is singled out as a genre, but (the label) is also problematic," he tells me. "Artists don't want to be picking roles geographically. Art anywhere in the world is just art. It's neither 'American' nor 'African' nor 'European.' It's just art. Most artists will tell you that."

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