“El Anatsui: Topology of Generosity”, presented by Barakat Seoul, sheds light on the potential of change that a single artist can generate. In contemporary art, discussions on the actual power of the arts mainly recall socially participatory works, pedagogical activities, or collective activities based on manifestos. This exhibition however focuses on the inner strength of the artist, a strength that started from within and, through many years of work, has brought forward changes in the lives and the environment of the people that surround him, equally focusing on El Anatsui’s attitude as an artist as reflected by his works.
Anatsui’s most representative works are large-scale installations reminiscent of tapestries, created by processing and connecting with copper wire thousands of used caps discarded from the bottles of drinks consumed in Nigeria. He has achieved recognition among the international art circles with these works, receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2015 Venice Biennale and having his works exhibited and collected in renowned galleries and museums around the globe. Having studied art at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, El Anatsui studied the techniques of calssical Western painting but sought to cultivate his own techniques that would not be tied to conventional art practices. While ceaselessly experimenting with a variety of materials and media around him such as wood, stone, and earth, Anatsui came to transform caps of discarded alcohol bottles into unique and elaborate metallic sculptures.
Discovering in the caps of these discarded bottles traces of the individuals who have used and handled them, Anatsui weaves them together into textile-like works. Woven in the warp and weft of these metal objects are the interconnected narratives of the villagers related to these caps. The task of thus linking villagers and his works is in itself the way in which the artist forges relationships with his others. Discarded after use, the bottle caps are symbols not only of memories harbored by individuals who have consumed the drinks but also of memories harbored by the collective, recalling the historical fact that alcoholic beverages began to be supplied to Africa by Western countries. They summon the traumatic modern and contemporary history of Africa, cutting through slavery and the colonial period.
Anatsui’s works thus are the fruits which combine the participation of individuals and, at the same time, they are fabrics where historical time and present moments intersect. His work, where multilayered narratives are combined to form a network, is like a metaphor of the network systems of our era, which are connected through Internet networks. Just like a network, where individual nodes are linked without hierarchy, Anatsui equally avoids becoming an absolute overseer in his art, and allows others to participate in the entire art process from the production to the installation of his works. By prompting villagers to actively participate in the creation of his work and by also by allowing every work to merge with every exhibition space, he opens the possibility of diverse interpretations to viewers.
The title “El Anatsui: Topology of Generosity” suggests that the concept of topology is an approach of expressing the artist’s attitude of generosity and of interpreting his works from different perspectives. First presented in early 20th-century mathematics as a theory of space, “topology” has since then been used in diverse fields as a conceptual term referring to spaces and objects that are trans- formed by connected relationships instead of being fixed in one place. Instead of being fixed, objects in space are fluid and change and expand according to the arrangement of diverse nodes, the balance of power is distributed across the center and the periphery is dispersed, while the distinction between the subject and the object is erased, making thus possible the creative formation of relations.
In the exhibition space, Anatsui’s works will be compared to topological objects, which by crumpling and folding, will transform the angular exhibition space. In these space viewers will be able to form personal relationships with the works, thus adding to the extension of meanings and the trans- formation of the spaces. Interpreting El Anatsui’s work through a topological spectrum, allows one to see past a modern understanding of ethnic and topographical classifications of Africa, demonstrating that multiple perspectives and diverse interpretations of his art are possible. A strong sense of correlation to the paintings of Gustav Klimt and to the elaborateness and spirituality of Byzantine art becomes also evident in his work, allowing El Anatsui to be viewed beyond his African origins. His artistic world opens up horizons of thought, where disparate experiences are possible according to the locations and contexts in which the works are experienced. In tandem, the artist’s ethos, which sees life as continuously moving and changing, is reflected in his works.
Anatsui has never stopped experimenting with new medium and accepting different undertakings. “El Anatsui: Topology of Generosity” also offers the opportunity to present the artist’s latest prints created in collaboration with Factum Arte in Madrid. His artistic experimentation encompasses the past and the present, pursues the fundamental strength of the arts and aims at the future. On new horizons cultivated through the trajectory of his life, Anatsui is proposing a perspective from which the arts can be seen in a new light.