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Stunning El Anatsui Exhibit On Display At Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

An artwork called

Credit: Andrew McAllister, courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.

Above: An artwork called "Gravity and Grace" by African artist El Anatsui. It's made from discarded liquor bottle caps.

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A stunning new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego features the work of an internationally acclaimed artist from Africa who makes shimmering sculptures out of discarded bottle caps.

Artist El Anatsui likes to make art with items that have been thrown away.

It’s not recycling that interests him. It’s the idea that an item was touched by another human being. "Because then it comes with not only energy, but history and it has a story," explained the 71-year-old African artist who splits his time between homes in Ghana and Nigeria.

"And I think the story has a way of continuing into the work."

He believes there is a human residue left on every day items. Offered as further proof, he cites the work of spiritual healers in Africa.

Andrew McAllister, courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.

A detailed look at a work called "Mask of Humankind." These are the discarded liquor bottle caps El Anatsui uses in some of his work.

"Say somebody wants to have the love of another person. The healer you are consulting might ask you to bring something that a fellow has used and with that he’ll be able to make a connection," Anatsui said. "So things that humans have used have a spiritual energy in them."

In his most famous pieces, many of which are on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's downtown location, Anatsui uses discarded screw-top caps from liquor bottles – everything from whiskey, gin and rum. He flattens and stretches the caps. Sometimes he uses the ring left on the bottle after the cap is twisted off. He wire stitches thousands of the mutated caps together into massive wall tapestries.

Some pieces are as big as a movie screen in a large theater. And they take a long time to make. I asked him how long it takes him, and he reminds me that he needs 30 assistants to help him.

"So if you’re working with 30 people, it takes two weeks to make a work. That means that one person making it is 30 times two weeks, which means it takes 60 weeks for one person to make one," Anatsui said.

Joe Levack, courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.

A work from 2010 called "Wall," by artist El Anatsui, whose work is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's downtown location. This installation is from the Akron Art Museum.

The bottle caps are different colors: gold, silver, reds and blues. Many have logos and crests with names like Liquor Headmaster or Duke Beverages. The caps also reference the historic relationship between Europe and Africa, specifically the introduction of liquor to the continent.

"European traders brought items to Africa to trade with and this was one of the earliest items that was brought," Anatsui said.

The internationally acclaimed artist was born in a small fishing village in Ghana, the youngest of his father’s 32 children. His mother died when he was young, so he moved in to a mission house in another town with his uncle, who was a Presbyterian minister.

It wasn’t until later that he was exposed to many of the indigenous traditions in his country, like weaving Kente cloth. He would see this kind of weaving when he visited his hometown.

Andrew McAllister, courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.

A hanging wall sculpture by African artist El Anatsui. It's called "Black Block" and is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's downtown location.

"In my hometown, almost everybody wove, because the place was a peninsula. And the main occupation was fishing, but when the lagoons would dry up, they’d switch to weaving," Anatsui said.

Anatsui’s father and many of his brothers wove. But he says he was never interested in it. His wall sculptures resemble glittering metal fabric. But he’s more interested in abstraction and ideas, than he is in the craft of weaving textiles.

"I have unconsciously come to textiles not as a technical process but as something which has meaning," Anatsui said.

The wall pieces can be manipulated to curve and fold. Most don’t hang straight. Unlike most artists, El Anatsui lets the staff at each museum install the pieces in whatever way they want. He doesn't provide the staff with instructions on how the works should look. That makes them change over time, he explained. They are not fixed works.

"Like David or Statue of Liberty, which is there for many centuries holding the torch," Anatsui said. "It's something I’ve rebelled against. I want art to reflect the vicissitudes and changes that life confronts us with every day.

Life is not a fixed thing and I want my artworks to be things you can change."

"Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui" will be on view through the end of June at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s downtown location.

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