South African National Gallery
Government Avenue, Company's Garden
February 17 - April 29
El Anatsui's first solo exhibition in South Africa, “Meyina,” traces its origins back to a 2014 show organized by curator Bisi Silva to mark the seventieth birthday of the artist, her friend and mentor. Hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, “El Anatsui: Playing with Chance” presented work by the acclaimed Ghanaian sculptor together with materials drawn from his studio and library. The current show, whose title means “I am going” in Ewe and which is also curated by Silva, reprises this expository curatorial strategy. On view are five recent examples of Anatsui's wall-hung draperies made from found aluminum and copper wire, two undated wood panels that are exemplary of his earlier practice, and an engrossing selection of news clippings, drawings, and books displayed in glass cabinets, along with handwritten letters and invoices arranged across two walls.
The ephemera bears witness to the collegial networks and bureaucratic intricacies of a professional career, including the requirement to explain oneself. An undated artist statement, written in neat cursive and studiously revised with red pen, states: “The major watershed in my art career came immediately after art school with my encounter with the Ghanaian adinkra symbols . . . It catalyzed an early shift in my work from narrative figuration to abstraction.” Yet abstraction is too vague a term to account for Anatsui's bountiful visual idiom, which draws on cultural traditions and motifs specific to Ghana and Nigeria. A display of sixteen prints based on linear uli drawings made between 1958 and 1981 by Anatsui's mentor, the Nigerian artist Uche Okeke, and owned by Anatsui is helpful in locating some of these subsumed influences. Despite the show's historical sweep, Silva does not present Anatsui trapped in amber: Oases, 2014-16, an almost uniformly gray drapery composed of stitched and occasionally folded blocks of discarded aluminum printing plates, signals energetic renewal consistent with the show's titular promise of progress.