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At the vanguard of a wave

The celebrated African artist El Anatsui brings a fascinating retrospective to the Davis Museum

El Anatsui with one of his sculptures in a career retrospective at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. El Anatsui with one of his sculptures in a career retrospective at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / April 1, 2011

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WELLESLEY — When one of Africa’s most celebrated artists, El Anatsui, first came to New England, it was to take up a short residency at the Cummington Community of the Arts in Western Massachusetts. The year was 1980, Anatsui was a virtual unknown, and the residency took place in summer.

“I had to go out and buy warm clothes,’’ recalls Anatsui with a smile. “I had come from the tropics.’’

Three decades later, Anatsui has come back from the tropics. He flew to Boston from Nigeria on Monday to help with the installation of a retrospective, the first in the United States to present an overview of his entire career. The show, which was organized by the Museum of African Art in New York, opened yesterday at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, from which it will travel to three other museums.

Things have changed for Anatsui since his residency in Cummington. He is no longer unknown. In fact, he is feted around the globe.

Anatsui runs a studio with about 20 assistants in Nsukka, Nigeria, where he is a professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. Adored by critics and curators, he is at the vanguard of a wave of African artists who have come to international prominence over the past decade, among them Chéri Samba, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, Cyprien Tokoudagba, and Bodys Isek Kingelez.

These artists are no longer viewed as makers of “primitive art,’’ or of objects of ethnographic note, which used to be the focus of Western interest in African art. Rather, they are viewed as contemporary artists in their own right, engaged with local traditions, yes, but also with their own ideas and emotions, and with the wider social and political realities of life in a global world.

AT 67, ANATSUI is certainly no overnight sensation. Up until 2007, his sculptures in wood, ceramic, and found objects had been steadily garnering plaudits over several decades. He earned an honorable mention in 1990, at the 44th Venice Biennale, the art world’s version of the Cannes Film Festival.

In 2002, Anatsui had a major epiphany. He had been walking near the university campus in Nsukka when he saw a stash of bottle caps and foil bottleneck wrappers from whiskey, wine, rum, gin, schnapps, brandy, and vodka bottles, produced in West African distilleries.

He had already been making sculptures from found objects — from metal pieces used to grate casava, and from salvaged milk tin lids. A milk tin work, called “Peak Project,’’ “was a comment on consumerism,’’ says Anatsui. “The quantity of [evaporated] milk consumed in a day in a single small village — it’s astonishing! People use the cup of the tin for other things. So there are people who remove the lids and discard them — they can do 30 or 40 in a minute.’’

So when he saw the bottle caps and foils, he took them back to his studio and started tying them together with twists of copper wire.

The works that ensued combine impressive scale — some are over 30 feet long and as much as 12 feet high — with ravishing color. Reds, black, and blues alternate with gold and silver in undulating shapes that capture and absorb light in unpredictable ways. Each work involves a range of formal innovations, from splendid stripes to asymmetrical patterns, empty holes, and organic-looking outlines. The bottle caps themselves, with their labels and logos, are rich in potential meanings, and made richer by the titles Anatsui gives the works. At the most basic level, they allude to forms of consumerism that are particular to Africa. Anatsui says he receives between 20 and 30 waist-high bags of these bottle caps each year from local distilleries, which retrieve them after the bottles’ contents have been consumed.

“I still wonder how people are able to consume such quantities of liquor,’’ he laughs.

But Anatsui’s configurations of color and shape, combined with his allusive titles (“Earth Cloth,’’ “Three Continents,’’ “Bleeding Takari’’) also refer to the symbolic meanings embedded in African textiles, to poetry and mythology, and to political divisions.

“Cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners,’’ he has said. And like certain monuments, these works, for all their dazzling color and sensuous form, can feel heavy with mourning and memory.

There are artistic breakthroughs, and there are breakthroughs in the reception of one’s work. Anatsui’s big “reception’’ breakthrough came in 2007. Again, it was at the Venice Biennale. Contemporary African art was a focus of special attention that year.

One of Anatsui’s biggest works, “Fresh and Fading Memories,’’ was draped across the facade of the Palazzo Fortuny, welcoming people to a much-buzzed-about exhibition called “Artempo: Where Time Becomes Art.’’ A pair of his works was also installed at the far end of the Biennale’s main exhibition hall.

In both cases, the impact was tremendous.

Word spread. The world’s great museums lined up to buy his work. Anatsui became a bona fide art star, appearing in major group shows, accepting commissions and residencies, and holding workshops in countries all over the world. (The Museum of Fine Arts acquired its own piece this year. It is on display in the Linde Family Wing.)

IT’S POSSIBLY JUST jet lag, but Anatsui seems exhausted when I meet him in the Davis Museum’s galleries. A crew from the PBS documentary series “Art21’’ has been filming him and the installation of his work. They spent the previous day interviewing him.

According to the Davis’s director, Lisa Fischman, the process of installing the works was “particularly lively.’’ Fischman was a curator at the University of Arizona Museum of Art when it hosted a small survey of Anatsui’s work, and remembers the artist exhorting nervous installers to loosen up: “Everyone can drape! Everyone can bunch!’’ he had called out then.

“It’s been even more collaborative this time,’’ says Fischman. “You get to really mess with these things!’’

Anatsui clearly loves a joke. When asked who was responsible for consuming the spirits from all the bottles used in his wall pieces, he claims partial responsibility. And yet he seems almost melancholy as he stands before a floor piece called “Open(ing) Market.’’

The piece shows three large trunks surrounded by hundreds of trinket boxes. The lids are all open and facing the same way, so that, standing in front of the piece, we see the brightly colored labels for basic consumer products that the artist has glued to their interiors.

“When I was a kid,’’ says Anatsui, “these trunks were the kind of cases you packed your things in, if you were sent away to boarding school or on a trip. I saw them and my mind was instantly carried back to childhood days.’’

Anatsui was born in Ghana, the youngest of 32 children, and grew up in a Presbyterian mission. It was an environment in which, he says, “I was completely insulated from my own culture.’’

It was only when he left home to go to art school that he began to learn more about his Ghanaian and African heritage and, he adds, “I was very strongly drawn to it.’’

He began introducing language and ideograms into his sculptures in 1969. Later, he discovered a system of signs, known as Adinkra, used by West African people.

As Anatsui talks about his work, he is standing in front of a wall sculpture made from horizontal slats of wood, with a long title that begins “When I last wrote to you about Africa’’ and ends “I have grown older.’’ The sculpture is inscribed with ideograms and a border that makes it resemble a scroll.

The ideograms “allude to abstract ideas — versatility, oneness with God, soul, and so on,’’ explains Anatsui. “You combine them and they are like poems, wise sayings for profound occasions. I still use them in my work today.’’

The show as a whole, as it happens, is also called “When I Last Wrote to You About Africa.’’ El Anatsui’s most recent “letters’’ from Africa, in the form of his draped wall sculptures made from bottle caps, may be the most beautiful and eloquent of his works. But many of the earlier missives were just as captivating, urgent, and profound.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

EL ANATSUI: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa At: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley. Through June 26. 781-283-2051, www. davismuseum.wellesley.edu