El Anatsui, Carriageworks, 2016

Famous for assembling large numbers of bottle caps and various bits of aluminium attached with copper wire, Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui was awarded the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Working in Nigeria, his art is exhibited throughout the world including UK, USA, Europe, Africa, Middle East and Japan.

EL ANATSUI : FIVE DECADES is the first major retrospective shown in Australia. More than 30 works are displayed including ceramics, drawings, sculptures and woodcarvings alongside the representative large-scale installations. El purposely allows the curators freedom of installation. This means that each installation can be significantly different. El has said that if ‘art is life, life is not static and so art should be dynamic’. This allows opportunity for change and re-creation. At the micro level, discarded and damaged objects can be transformed into something new. Existence is fragile and transient.

Flattened, folded and bound together with copper wire, the labels from whiskey, wine, rum, gin, brandy, vodka and schnapps reflected the stories of cultural exchange, trade, consumption, colonialism and migration to the African continent.

His large installations stretch from the walls to the floor. The objects unfurl expansively, outlining the contours of landscape, cartography, and the language of abstract painting.

Some of the more striking pieces exhibited include:

Waste Paper Bags (2004-2010): Printed aluminium and copper square bales, carry bags and satchels. As they sit in their space, they push the viewer out of the way. They are made of many layers of material, initially starting with newspaper obituary columns, ‘now re-buried in a monumental way’. The layers were added to protect the work as it travelled to various exhibitions.

The flowing Tiled Flower Garden (2012) is full of colourful aluminium with copper wire stringing the flowers together. This is the fourth installation of this work and each has been noticeably different.

Andrika Sasa (2003) is a dominant square charcoal wall hanging, a patchwork using many Dark Rum labels. It symbolises the European trade with Africa. The West African Andrika symbols common in his earlier work are absent from this work, like the fracturing of Africa through colonisation.

Awakened Folded aluminium and wire – appears like a shredded flag

Ceramic and Manganese Chambers of Memory 1977- appear to allow you into rooms in the skull with dislodged eyeballs.

Blema 2006 Large hanging covered in concentric golden circles with bits of red and black forcing through as background underlay.

Open(ing) Market 2004 metal tin paper, paint, iroko and plywood. There are over 1700 items. Boxes with labels of brands such as Milo, Omo, Peak powdered milk and Starkist Tuna inside their lids. The scale alludes to the prevalence of foreign products within Africa’s growing market.

Stressed World (2011) appears more loosely woven showing world and environmental change. Using five different processes, the issues addressed cover enrichment and poverty, depletion, the built environment and density.

Drainpipe (2010): Long swathes of aluminium can lids linked with copper wire are laid like pipes, though not parallel, at times like legs languidly crossed.

This exhibition probes the histories of colonial and post-colonial Africa alongside themes of consumption, exchange and the promise of renewal. Walk amongst the work and be intoxicated.

EL ANATSUI: FIVE DECADES exhibition at Carriageworks runs from 7 Jan to 6 March 2016 from 10-6pm daily.