In Anatsui’s art, rescued trash comes to life, tells a story

“They Finally Broke the Pot of Wisdom” is one of about a half-dozen works in “El Anatsui: New Worlds” at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.
“They Finally Broke the Pot of Wisdom” is one of about a half-dozen works in “El Anatsui: New Worlds” at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

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SOUTH HADLEY — Picture an empty liquor bottle. The place: Nigeria. Maybe it’s along the side of the road. A throwaway.

Consider the currents of history that bottle symbolizes. During the colonial era, rum made in New England was shipped to the coast of West Africa and bartered for slaves. Slave ships traveled to the West Indies, where African men and women were traded for molasses and sugar, which were sent to New England to distill more rum.

Today’s bottle has echoes of the commerce that shaped the fates of so many Africans. When African artist El Anatsui reclaims what must now be millions of liquor bottle caps and the aluminum sleeves that enclose them to make his magnificent works – call them textiles, call them sculptures, no name quite fits – that history is as palpable as the trashy material itself.

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