Singular Gems—El Anatsui’s Hovor II

By LIZ HAGER

El Anatsui—Hovor II, 2004

El Anatsui, Hovor II, 2004
Woven aluminum bottle caps and copper wire.
de Young Museum (all pictures ©Liz Hager)

From its spot hanging, appropriately enough, between the textile and African galleries, El Anatsui’s large sculptural textile, Hovor II, ripples and shimmers seductively under the spotlights. It is a brilliant example of the way in which mundane objects (in the hands of a clever artist) can transform our notion of what art is.

El Anatsui—Hovor II (detail), 2004

El Anatsui, Hovor II (detail), 2004.

I stood transfixed by the overall patterns flowing through the tapestry. Upon closer examination, I was utterly captivated by the structure of the piece. Using copper wire, the artist has strung together tens of thousands of flattened metal bottle caps (the twist-off variety found on certain liquor bottles) in basic emulation of a textile weave (some log cabin, some stripes). He purposely molds the finished flat “cloth” into  forms, folds and wrinkles that emulate a billowing textile. While the piece is extremely large, it isn’t implacably monumental.

Stepping in close, I noticed the large and subtle array of colors that actually comprise the piece—not only golds, bronzes and coppers, but blacks, reds, blues, yellows. These fragments of metal are akin to the paint strokes of a painting—step in close and you see the true skill and constructive ingenuity of the artist.

El Anatsui—Hovor II (detail 2), 2004

El Anatsui, Hovor II (detail), 2004.

El Anatsui has lived and worked in Nigeria for nearly three decades, but his metal tapestries attest to his Ghanaian roots (where he was born in 1944, when it was still a British colony). In the case of Hovor II, they echo the structure of the emblematic Ashanti ceremonial cloth, Kente. In this case, the title derives from Ewe tribal words for “cloth of wealth.”

El Anatsui—Hovor II (detail 3), 2004

El Anatsui, Hovor II (detail), 2004.

The artist uses all manner of found objects, though mostly metal these days, to highlight Africa’s heritage. His work speaks to the adverse effects on Africa of globalism, consumerism and waste. In some West African cultures, metal and liquor have supernatural associations:  glittering metal signifies the presence of spirit and liquor is poured as a form of prayer. But a darker element too is present in these tapestries, for spirits (rum in particular) constituted one leg of the colonial slave trade triangle.

Adinkra symbols: Left—humility with strength; Right—bravery and valor

El Anatsui is one of Africa’s most influential artists. After being trained in his youth in Western art traditions, the artist found that he longed for a mode of expression more African and turned to African ideographs. Beginning with adinkra and working in clay, the artist gradually developed his mature style, in which consumer cast-offs are reconstructed into proud reminders of Africa’s rich cultural history.

The artist has exhibited on five continents and was in the Venice Bienale in 1990. And still it’s safe to say he’s not as well known as comparable American or European artists. An accident of birth?  Or is it also that he references textiles, still not fully accepted as an art form in today’s Western-dominated art culture?

Having said that, all might change. Beginning in 2004 through the traveling exhibition Africa Re-Mix, El Anatsui’s work has come to the attention of a wider audience.

Detail of a man’s kente cloth, called Adweneasa, i.e. “my skills are exhausted.” Collection of the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA. (Photo by Don Cole.)

Wider Connections

El Anatsui —GAWU exhibition

History of Ashanti Kente Cloth

Hovor, 2003

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2 Responses to “Singular Gems—El Anatsui’s Hovor II”

  1. ai q lindo

  2. We had an entire show of El Anatusui’s work at the National Museum of Aftrican Art and I think that I saw it at least ten times. As “intoxicating” as this particular piece is, some of the work made out of other, more mundane metal is amazingly monumental…big ideas and also glamour…everything to like about this artist.

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