El Anatsui’s Monumental New Show Is an Act of Justice

MUNICH — I find it so hard to describe them: as vast, undulant tapestries, each one rippling and fluttering like a flag by the seashore? Or as heavy, defensive tessellations of metal, like the plate armor of soldiers in medieval Europe or Japan? As monumental mosaics, as landscapes of metallic bits and bobs? The wall-mounted sculptures of El Anatsui here at the Haus der Kunst cry out for metaphorical comparisons — but no metaphor ever seems enough to sum up these commanding artworks, each intricate enough to leave you gasping.

Mr. Anatsui, born in Ghana and based in Nigeria, was already an acclaimed artist and teacher in West Africa when he hit, 20 years ago, on a technique that would propel him to create some of the most extraordinary sculptures of this new century. On a wander one afternoon, he came across a plastic bag full of aluminum bottle caps, left for trash. Leaving behind his previous work in wood, he began to flatten, fold and fasten these caps into mutable wall-mounted compositions, lying somewhere between sculptures and textiles. Each massive work takes thousands of man-hours to produce, and bears traces of the lives of countless tipplers, revelers and serious drunks. Their puckers and pleats convey the oceanic sweep of history, and his abstract compositions bristle with attention to trade, slavery, consumerism, and the environment.

Sixteen of them are on display in “El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale,” an exhibition of overwhelming power and beauty. It’s almost certainly the largest solo presentation ever of a black African artist in Europe, and “triumphant” is very much the word for this show, which continues through the end of July at what was originally a show palace for the Nazis, now a major German museum with an uncertain curatorial future. (The show then travels from the Haus der Kunst to museums in Doha, Qatar; Bern, Switzerland; and Bilbao, Spain.) It flanks the bottle-cap works with Mr. Anatsui’s ceramics, wood sculptures and works on paper from the 1970s to 1990s, plus remarkable new commissions, including a 66-part maze of free-hanging curtains and a frieze made of German and Nigerian printing plates bolted to the museum’s facade.

I came to Munich to see this towering exhibition after admiring several previous shows of Mr. Anatsui, including one at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013. But my pilgrimage was also an act of remembrance for its co-curator: Okwui Enwezor, who served as director of the Haus der Kunst from 2011 until last summer, and who died on March 15, a week after this show’s opening. He was only 55. (Though he worked until the very end from his Munich hospital room, Mr. Enwezor — who organized this show with his friend and colleague Chika Okeke-Agulu, a professor of art history at Princeton University and a former student of Mr. Anatsui in Nigeria — was not able to see it.)

Mr. Anatsui was born in 1944 in Anyako, Ghana — or Gold Coast, as the colony was known before winning independence in 1957. His art education in Kumasi followed a British academic tradition. The students in independent Ghana had to discover African art for themselves, and Mr. Anatsui and his friends supplemented their academic training with study of West African design, such as the rhythmically interwoven strips of cotton and silk in kente textiles, or the polysemic ideographs stamped on Adinkra cloths.

His efforts to forge a unique abstract language out of both European and African influences began in the early 1970s, with painted wood discs whose rims were incised with his own idiosyncratic glyphs. He left Ghana in 1975 to take a teaching position at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, where he still lives and works, and where he has trained a whole generation of pioneering artists and curators.

When he began to work with bottle caps, Mr. Anatsui undertook a substantial upshift in scale, and in artistic ambition. First the aluminum caps, as well as the thin tamper-evident bands beneath them, are fashioned into fixed shapes: flattened into long hexagonal strips, pounded into squares, cut and twisted into O-rings, or crumpled like a pie tart. Then they are tied into sheets via tiny loops of cooper wire, and those sheets combine into sweeping compositions of 1,000 square feet or more.

Though resplendent, they do not glimmer; the aluminum is dull and matte, and on most caps you can still see the brand names of Nigerian liquor companies like Castello or Headmaster. Like his earlier works in wood, these sculptures are essentially reliefs, composed of interchangeable parts that bulge and buckle from the wall and sometimes run onto the floor.

Look at the ravishing monochrome works “Red Block” and “Black Block” (both from 2010, each more than 16 feet tall), and you can see how Mr. Anatsui and his assistants transform the bottle caps into a sculptable material that permits endless possible forms. In each, the panels can be pleated like a bed skirt, draped like a toga or cinched like a sausage link — and Mr. Anatsui isn’t fussy about their display. I had seen “Earth’s Skin” (2009) in Brooklyn, where it hung mostly flat; here in Munich, its thousands of gold, red and yellow and black components are bunched more densely, and flaps extend from two sides.

This show’s meticulous arguments about shape, color, medium and scale rebuke the narrowness — and, in some cases, the racism — of many western art museums. It remains sadly uncommon for African contemporary art to receive this kind of full reckoning, and all too often, when it makes it to Europe or the United States, our museums often shrink it to fulfilling a single political or educational function.

Yet Africa is not a monolith, and great African art interweaves form and meaning in as complex a fashion as the European and American art our museums call “universal.” The curators’ insistence that Mr. Anatsui merits just as thorough an exhibition as Georg Baselitz or Louise Bourgeois (two recent solo shows at the Haus der Kunst), with all the technical, historical, and symbolic analysis that museums afford such western artists, constitutes its own act of justice.

Still, Mr. Anatsui’s art also displays an intense involvement with the postcolonial experience, first in the glyphs and nicks of the wood sculptures, and later in each bottle cap. Though the alcohol the caps once stoppered is made in Nigeria, the drinks carry vestiges of centuries of cultural exchange; beer comes from Egypt and the Middle East, gin from the distilleries of England, and rum from West Indian plantations worked by slaves brought from Mr. Anatsui’s home continent.

His use of recycled materials, too, points to Mr. Anatsui’s underappreciated engagement with environmental crises, which comes through most strongly in the sublime “Rising Sea” (2019). Running 45 feet across, soaring 26 feet to the ceiling, this new work consists of thousands of white breakaway bands, each reading “TURN TO OPEN,” that give way, at top, to dull silver bottle caps that suggest a horizon line. “Rising Sea,” along with “Earth’s Skin” and earlier wood sculptures like the slashed “Erosion” (1992), are proof that Mr. Anatsui’s recycling is not a make-do act by an artist from a “deprived” region, but a complex fusion of material, political and historical concerns into a medium with unique expressive potential.

Due recognition of artists like Mr. Anatsui owes so much to the work of Mr. Enwezor, who, more than any curator of the last 30 years, broadened and globalized our view of contemporary art. He and his team raised the ambitions of the Haus der Kunst through shows such as the landmark historical exhibition “Postwar,” and presented solo exhibitions by Germans like Thomas Struth and Harun Farocki, and also leading black and African figures like Ellen Gallagher and David Adjaye.

Not everything went well here; budgetary troubles arose, and attendance for “Postwar” was lower than expected. But after Mr. Enwezor’s resignation last year, for health reasons, the Haus der Kunst’s interim director canceled several shows he had programmed, replacing them with innocuous German painters; the local press reports that the next director, unlike Mr. Enwezor, will have to speak German.

It’s hard not to see this as a repudiation of Mr. Enwezor, who fought for a global Haus der Kunst even from his deathbed. Now, amid a distressing nativist reaction taking hold in Germany and across Europe, is the time for museums to reaffirm the values of global perception and cultural exchange that he embodied. They come through like a clarion call in Mr. Enwezor’s final exhibition — wide as the world, blazingly beautiful. Let it stand as his epitaph.

El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale

Through July 28 at the Haus der Kunst, Munich; hausderkunst.de.

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