HANOVER, N.H. -- The sculptor El Anatsui was out scavenging for materials near his home in Nsukka , Nigeria, one day in the late 1990s when he found a bag of discarded bottle caps. He kept them in his studio for several months until he hit on the idea of pounding them flat and stitching them together like patchwork fabrics.
The results, seen in "El Anatsui: Gawu " at Dartmouth College's Hood Museum of Art , are giant shimmering curtains of black and red and gold arranged in patterns that recall the stripes of West African ceremonial kente cloth. Anatsui's work is owned by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, the Pompidou Center in Paris, and the British Museum in London, but it remains little known in the United States. "Gawu" ("Ga" references metal and "Wu" references a fashioned cloak), organized by Oriel Mostyn Gallery in Wales, shows what we've been missing. This is a compact show, just seven sculptures, but each one wows. Anatsui, who was born in Ghana in 1944 and has lived in Nigeria since 1975, transforms junked milk-can lids, printing plates, and caps from liquor bottles into precious metals.
"Adinka Sasa" (2003) is an 18-foot-wide, 16-foot-tall tapestry of aluminum liquor-bottle labels bound with copper wire in long bands. The sculpture is mostly black ("Dark Sailor Rum" labels), with stripes of yellow, gold, and brown.
Anatsui's metal curtains appear soft, but they're actually hard and sharp. Part of his mastery is in choosing materials that embody his themes. His designs and materials allude to the struggles of contemporary West Africa as well as painful colonial legacies -- textiles and liquors Europeans and Americans brought to Africa to trade for gold and later slaves. The labels here advertise such brands as King Solomon, 007, and Ecomog, the name of a regional (though primarily Nigerian) peacekeeping force formed in 1990 to quell fighting in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
"Peak Project" (1999) assembles tin milk-can lids into 3-foot-high anthills that wiggle up from the floor. Here Anatsui clusters a few dozen of these mounds. The title is a joke on a common canned milk called "Peak."
Anatsui's methods come out of a culture of reuse: The bottle caps and labels are left over when the liquor bottling firms reuse emptied bottles; the milk-can lids are discarded, but people use the cylindrical cans as small cooking pots. The sculptures also embody his thoughts on capitalist consumption and the trash it creates in developing countries that lack the ability to melt down empty containers for recycling.
"I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up. I think that's what has been happening in Africa for a long time," Anatsui said in a 2003 interview. "I believe that color is inherent in everything, and it's possible to get color from around you, and that you're better off picking something which relates to your circumstances and your environment than going to buy a ready-made color."
Some sculptures are metaphors for African nations struggling under poverty and political corruption. They speak of societies where crime, disease, and war can sometimes make human life seem as disposable as tin cans.
"Wastepaper Basket" (2003) appears to be an 8-foot-tall gray paper bag surrounded by crumpled sheets of paper, but it is actually made of aluminum plates used to print advertisements for autos and drinks, as well as obituaries headlined "Tribute to My Beloved Husband" or "Asleep in the Lord."
"Crumbling Wall" (2000) is a 13-foot-tall, 18-foot-wide wall fashioned from rusty handmade graters (steel sheets pocked with nail holes) that were previously used for shredding cassava roots to make the Nigerian staple gari , a flour used in doughs and porridge . The work is freighted with cultural identity and the graters' history. Blocks seem to have come loose from the metal wall and tumbled to the ground. The back side lurches in and out precariously, threatening to topple. It feels ancient and exhausted and sad.