From the field

Global Africa

African artists are engaging with multiple modernities

Elizabeth Harney
Society Woman's Cloth

Society Woman's Cloth (Red and Black), 2007, aluminum and copper wire, by El Anatsui. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

African artists are engaging with multiple modernities

By Elizabeth Harney

The Ghanaian/Nigerian artist El Anatsui constructs masterpieces out of nothing more than the detritus of contemporary society—the discarded metal caps and wrappings of hundreds of discarded liquor bottles that are then “stitched” together with copper wire by a team of assistants working under his creative guidance. Sometimes battered flat, other times crumpled or twisted, these recuperated materials merge together to create infinitely variable, striated or circular patterns. These everyday materials are transformed—shifting from the category of rubbish to that of art. They are ultimately fashioned into monumental masterpieces that may draped round buildings, hung from walls, or splayed across greenery.

El Anatsui is just one of a sizable number of artists from Africa and the diaspora to whom contemporary curators and critics in our “globalized” art world have now turned their attentions after decades of neglect.

My research as a scholar, curator and critic of modern and contemporary African art documents, analyzes and publicizes the work of artists who have been active in Africa and its diaspora since the beginning of the 20th century. I engage broadly with the scholarship, across disciplines, which is now redefining the ways we understand the global faces of modernity. While so-called traditional arts from Africa—wooden masks and figures, textiles, ceramics and the like—have long held a niche in the global art market and academia, African painters, sculptors, photographers and other “modern” artists have been ignored or marginalized, even when they have participated in the great artistic movements of the 20th century in Paris, London and New York.

El Anatsui is an artist who explicitly engages in a dialogue with histories of global and local modernities. Part sculpture, part tapestry, his newest works reference a whole range of histories—European and African—and point us towards writing more subtle stories of artistic influence in the 20th century. For example, many critics have noted the works’ resemblance to Ghanaian kente cloths, ceremonial cloaks and traditional weaving. They also show his keen interest in the historical links between graphic traditions and systems of power. But these works also show a clear understanding of global art histories; the palette and effect have been compared by some to Gustav Klimt’s paintings. Ultimately, El Anatsui’s focus on the processes of transformation, in materials and in spirit, appeals to broad contemporary audiences.

I have been fortunate to work with artists like El Anatsui during a time when the art world has become increasingly global in profile, and I have tried to bring a sense of that globalism to my UTSC students. The interdisciplinary orientation of the Department of Arts, Culture & Media prepares its students to enter this new art world with an understanding of the diversity and interconnectedness of artistic practice today and in the past.

Elizabeth Harney is an associate professor in the Department of Arts, Culture & Media at UTSC.