This past weekend my friend Olivia and I made a trip up to Toronto, Canada for the El Anatsui Exhibition. The show is called , “When I last Wrote to You about Africa.” Getting up at 5am in order to take the school taxi to Brockville made me nostalgic as I remembered several early trips I made during my study-abroad- program in Italy last fall. By the time we had jumped into the SLU Van and were on our way my mind was ruminating over several things. I thought to myself, ” Will I have any problems with my Canadian Visa? What if they deny me entry? This is going to be a wonderful experience, Toronto is going to be fun…Will I get enough homework done? Next week is pretty full…what will I say to the artists I meet…I hope it won’t be awkward…homework.”
Luckily for me, there were no problems at the Prescott boarder, so off we went to Brockville. Here we had time to grab some breakfast before Viarail transported us to Toronto.
Three hours later we arrived in cool and damp Toronto. I was suddenly grateful for the black winter coat I had decided to carry last minute. After fumbling about trying to make sense of the city map, we eventually found the subway and were soon whizzed to Museum Station which literally took us to the door steps of the Royal Ontario Museum. Occasionally, Olivia and I would throw in an Italian word into our conversations. Maps, trains and foreign currency caused a flood of memories from Luca, Gubbio and other Italian towns.Despite the damp drizzle, it felt wonderful to be in a city again. The tall glass towers and contemporary architecture were a breath of fresh air. After all, I had been in Canton for most of the year.
Once we had received our student discounted tickets and entered the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) we both became really excited. We called Chika Okeke, a friend of Professor Udechukwu. Since he could no longer come with us to Toronto, Prof. Udechukwu connected us with Chika Okeke who (we were told) would help us get acquainted with El Anatsui. “Just come to the fourth floor, we are here now.” Okeke casually said on the phone, and off we went to see the show. Moments later we walked past one of Anatsui’s famous bottle top pieces and started scanning the room for Okeke. I had neglected to look him up on line and now realized that we were looking for someone whose face I had no recollection of. A few minutes of awkwardness passed. Olivia and I stood grinning sheepishly towards three important looking African men, who in turn were glancing at us.
“Are you Obiora’s students?” The silence was broken, as Okeke put out his hand for a handshake. I suddenly recognized Anatsui from some of the videos we had watched in my West African art class. After a while we had all exchanged greetings and were making small talk, joking about how remote Canton, NY is. The third person among the ‘important looking African men’ was very friendly and welcoming. He was very impressed by the fact that I was studying both Politics and art. When Olivia mentioned that she was a Math and Art major, he remarked that this was similar to El Anatsui’s work which has lots of mathematics involved. I marveled at the way he warmly refereed to Anatsui (who by the way is an incredible artist) as, “El”, as though they were close buddies. Little did I know that he too was significant figure in the art world. I was later told that this man is Okwui Enwezor, one of the world’s top curators. He has received high acclaim for being an artistic director of the Documenta 11 exhibition in Germany (1998–2002). There are a billion other things he has done, and I will blog about them another time. Thereafter we had some photo’s taken with Anatsui, Okeke and Enwezor. (Olivia will give them to me soon and I will put them up.)
Out of all of Anatsui’s work, I found the large liquor bottle top tapestries most appealing. These large pieces were hung high on the gallery walls and draped down like gigantic metallic quilts. Even though they were made out of hard material, the installations looked fluid and free moving. The different bottle tops, bent and woven together formed several repeated patterns. From a distance the colors of these thousands of little pieces made larger geometric shapes. I found it amazing how one could use found objects and manipulate them in a way that reminded me of Gustav Klimt’s style. (note: the reference to Klimt is not my own original idea.)
I was awed by the diversity of the artist’s skill. It’s amazing how one artist can move from creating a delicately intimate ink drawing to enormous textured installations. The show included relief sculpture, assemblage, aqua tint prints, abstract drawing presented in interesting ways. All of these forms of art are used to make references to social and political issues such as, slavery, oral tradition and consumerism. Anatsui draws some of his ideas and imagery from ancient West African art forms. These include Nok ceramic heads, Adrinka, Uli and Nsibidi writing forms. These are the works that stuck out to me:
1979 -81 Uli drawings
1986 When I last wrote to you
1996 Akua’s Surviving Children
1992 Club Windows
2002- Cancelled Scroll
2004 Opening Market
Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos of the work, and I was too shy to personally ask him for permission. Thank fully, there are wonderful online sources that one can use to see Anatsui’s work.
Sometime in the next couple of weeks Olivia and I will give our West African Art class a brief presentation. YAY!