El Anatsui, Black Block, 2010, aluminum, copper wire, 17' 2 3⁄4“ × 11' 1⁄2”.

El Anatsui, Black Block, 2010, aluminum, copper wire, 17' 2 3⁄4“ × 11' 1⁄2”.

El Anatsui

El Anatsui is the decolonial artist par excellence, known for rejecting Western modes and materials in favor of sustainability and indigeneity. It is with no small irony, then, that he should end up showing in Qatar, a country known for precisely the opposite. Organized by Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu, this major exhibition debuted at Munich’s Haus der Kunst last year and will travel to Bern, Switzerland, and to Bilbao, Spain. Despite Enwezor’s posthumous credit as curator of the next Sharjah Biennial, “El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale” bears the romance of being the curator’s last completed show.

El Anatsui is best known for his monumental bottle-cap, wire, and liquor-label sculptures, which formed the heart of the exhibition. Perhaps in Europe the same works would invoke the centrality of both liquor and cloth in the transatlantic slave trade. In Doha, they suggested nothing so much as the oozy expanses of sand and sea that surround the city. Their rippling polychromatic folds evoked variously the contour-lined topographies of parts unknown, and patchy, eczema-afflicted skin. They exceeded metaphor; they curiously seemed to have a mouthfeel.

The survey also includes sections devoted to El Anatsui’s lesser-known drawings, ceramics, and wooden sculptures. The last are especially rewarding in the way they deploy violent modes of mark-making—with chain saws and blowtorches—to record and transmute colonial brutality. These sections are ordered in a thematic trajectory that charts the artist’s development over time. A small selection of prints speaks to his recent emphasis on capturing ephemeral traces of his own practice. The name of this “Benchmarks” series, 2017–, is literal: The tabletops where the artist and his assistants work—nicked and indented from decades of crushing force applied to bottle tops, wires, and other materials—had been 3-D scanned, then printed using an etching press.

The multidecade sweep of the show provided its own trace-based pleasures in the way that premonitions of the cloth-like forms, and consideration of sculpture as graphic mark-making, already appear as faint impressions in early blowtorched-and-carved wooden works. And even as the power of El Anatsui’s different bodies of work lies primarily in their transformation of materials, in being so exponentially greater than the sum of their parts, there’s pleasure, too, in seeing his simple wooden trays from the 1970s, poignantly carved or branded with iron bars to bear symbols from Ghanaian textiles.

Of course, there are translations involved in a traveling show. Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, a converted school, is far smaller than the Haus der Kunst. Here, the sculptures felt too big for the walls they hung on, like tall people unconsciously ducking their heads in a doorway; two works had to be left out due to their overly triumphant scale. And there was no new work made for the institution’s facade, as there had been in Munich. Especially interesting were the handful of photographic prints, detail shots of other works, that lined one small room. These were added by the museum explicitly to fill an awkward transitional space and retain viewer interest, and were presumably deemed more effective than an EXHIBITION CONTINUES THIS WAY sign.

One Munich commission did survive here: a gargantuan, diaphanous maze with a loose, almost construction-netting weave. I was particularly reminded of the first El Anatsui work I saw—huge and yellow and unforgettable—on a visit to Mumbai, years before any artists at all were on my radar. I was charmed by how its material composition mirrored the very Indian concept of jugaad, of innovating—often via transformative recycling—in spite of limited resources. And in a room of mostly Indian contemporary works, I was struck by the palpable non-Westernness of it. I hadn’t realized that art could be like that.