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Sculptor turns junk into precious pieces

Citizen Staff Writer
Visual Arts



Upon entering the “El Anatsui GAWU” exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, visitors are greeted by poignant words from the Nigerian artist: “Art grows out of each particular situation, and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up.”

And while Anatsui’s large, recycled object sculptural pieces are certainly of Anatsui’s every day, they are created so that viewers may straddle worlds of socio-political commentary and sheer beauty. “Peak Project” (1999), for instance, looks like a fluid field of shimmering gold coins. But the piece consists of thousands of pieces of tin from Peak Milk, a brand of milk imported from the Western world. Up close, the circular pieces, strung together with wire, are rusted and bent, trash left on African soil.

“Wastepaper Basket” (2003), 8-feet tall and the most literal of the seven works on display, resembles a handled basket and seems to be made of crumpled paper. It’s not. The artist, head of sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, retrieved discarded aluminum plates of newspaper obituary pages.

Anatsui is a world-renowned artist, and it’s quite a coup that the UAMA snagged this exhibit. (“GAWU” next moves on to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.) This is, in a sense, a last push: See it soon, because works are on display through Jan. 20.

Lisa Fischman, chief curator of the UAMA, answered the following questions about Anatsui and “GAWU” in an e-mail interview.

Question: The wall text for “May Moons” indicates that El Anatsui helps with the installations of his exhibits. Did he help with the staging at UAMA? If yes, please describe his chief concerns.

Answer: Actually, I visited the presentation of “GAWU” at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, to see the works in person, and then made the decision about the layout of the works for the UAMA galleries. El arrived from Nigeria about a week in advance of the opening to supervise and help – in a very hands-on way – with the installation process. After his return to Africa, I received a note of thanks which mentions “how pleased he was with the caliber of the display” and that “out of all the venues so far, UAMA is his favorite” installation. I was delighted by the collaborative nature of the venture, and honored that El would not only abide my curatorial decisions but offer such generous compliments on the outcome.

What were your primary challenges in mounting this exhibit (from actual physical ones to contextualizing an artist the general public here is unfamiliar with)?

We faced several challenges in mounting this exhibition – first, in line with the UAMA mission, to educate the UA community and the general public about an artist who, however illustrious on the global art scene, was unknown here. Also, an exhibition of this caliber by an international artist poses logistical challenges – participation as a host on the exhibition tour, for example, and ensuring the artist’s travel to Arizona from Nigeria, etc. As well, I find that photographic images and descriptive language often fall short of the work itself – don’t fully capture the exceptional beauty and elegance of the pieces, much less Anatsui’s transformative magic with materials – and so another worthy challenge was in finding the ways to best convey my enthusiasm for and commitment to the presentation of Anatsui’s work.

What is Anatsui’s importance as an artist?

Anatsui is one of the foremost living artists on the African continent, highly regarded for the experimental nature and beauty of his sculpture over the past 30 years or so . . . but has also had enormous influence as an educator on several generations of students and younger artists. The Independent (London) last year ranked him as one of Africa’s 50 key cultural figures.

Do you see any American artists past or present who are like-minded?

Well, the interest in art making out of everyday detritus is long and varied, and includes Modernists and outsider artists in equal parts. Among contemporaries, African-American artists David Hammons and Terry Adkins come to mind. As sculptors who sample traditions and experiment with materials in aesthetically compelling and politically charged ways, both make work that strikes a good comparison, as American counterparts.


What: “El Anatsui GAWU” exhibit

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, noon-4 p.m. Saturdays-Sunday through Jan. 20

Where: UAMA, 1031 N. Olive, near Park Avenue and Speedway Boulevard

Price: free

Info: 621-7567, artmuseum.arizona.edu

Related lectures: “The Purpose and Meaning of African Beads” by a rep from The Bead Museum (4 p.m. Wednesday) • The Lost Boys of Sudan in Tucson talk about their journey from war-torn Sudan 4 p.m. Jan. 24)

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