Artists are a resourceful lot. In their hands, common materials become artifacts charged with new significance. Often this transformation is powered by an artist’s imagination or vision of metaphorical possibility. Other times it comes from sheer necessity—one uses what is at hand, almost regardless of the material itself.

Western artists typically use found or discarded materials to revel in their materiality or to implicate the wasteful systems and habits that caused the materials to be discarded. There’s a whole disorganized era of “recycle/reuse” art. But this term is a luxury of the First World, a place where an infinite amount of stuff is made infinitely available, while dropping a plastic water bottle into a bin is still held as some kind of noble act.

Oasis, El Anatsui (2008)
  • Photo courtesy Jane Katcher and Peter Harholdt
  • “Oasis,” El Anatsui (2008)

It’s tempting to place El Anatsui—a native Ghanaian artist who has spent most of his career in Nigeria—into the recycle/reuse category, but that would be a mistake. In the exhibition When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, the North Carolina Museum of Art shows 61 works from Anatsui’s over-forty-year career, in media ranging from his well-known tapestries made from bent and crushed liquor bottle caps to prints and paintings, carved wooden wall hangings, and a terrific array of sculpture made from anything he can get his hands on. Organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, the show moves on this summer to the Denver Art Museum and then the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

The title of this exhibition is apt. Anatsui isn’t recycling stuff into other stuff. He’s taking whatever materials are available to him to carry the content that he wants to express. Themes of traditions and folktales, protest against violence, the strength of community, and, most of all, the optimism inherent in the communicative act, all persist throughout each decade of his career and in each medium he chooses. And he encodes meaning most frequently in a writerly way.

In early work made in Ghana, Anatsui carved scrapped wooden planks with soldering irons, chainsaws, and power drills into gridded texts in adinkra, a Ghanaian graphical writing system. The 1986 plank piece that lends its title to the exhibition greets visitors at the entrance, imaging a curling parchment crowded with lines of symbols. Anatsui enacts colonial violence upon the wood, transforming it into native language expressing intimations of renewal. Aquatints, pen-and-ink drawings, and breathtaking paintings (that Anatsui has apparently never before thought to exhibit outside the African continent) iterate these same symbols within this grid, sometimes seeming more like flags, maps, game boards, or diagrams.

These same patterns and themes recur in the eight bottle-cap tapestries that anchor the exhibition. One’s eyes leave the opening plank piece to discover “Stressed World” (2011), in which the bottle caps are carefully folded into precise, open honeycombs, as well as crushed and densely linked with tiny copper wire loops. Areas of the tapestry look like nets, webs, foam, even a virus, suggesting a geography rife with border conflicts, an infected body, or a means of entrapment.

Although they’re never explicitly pictographic or representational, the tapestries are nonetheless so visually gorgeous that they approach the magical. Even after you’ve scrutinized how they’re made and what they’re made of, it’s impossible not to see them as a fabric rather than thousands of linked bits of industrial aluminum. If you’ve frequented the NCMA’s permanent collection, you’ve likely already marveled at “Lines that Link Humanity,” a colorful, undulating tapestry that the museum commissioned from Anatsui in 2008 as part of the new West Building’s opening. It’s exciting just to look at the tapestries.

Mounted to mimic windblown undulations, “Zebra Crossing III” (2007) captures the kinetic energy of a migrating herd. “Oasis” (2008) pits the dullness of crushed caps against the reflectivity of the flattened circumferences of the caps to represent a vaguely figural mosaic within a blinding desert. Although an underlying grid is still present to varying degrees in the tapestries, Anatsui undermines its rigidity by leaving the mounting of the tapestries to the discretion of curators and exhibition designers.

The NCMA takes the unconventional tack of organizing the exhibition neither chronologically nor thematically. Instead, sightlines between pieces take precedence in their exhibition design. Will casual visitors pick up on this? Sightlines matter more in a large open layout than in a series of discrete rooms like the East Building’s Meymandi Exhibition Gallery.

This organizational concept orphans some pieces. It’s too easy to gloss over two walls of prints and drawings, which could have been more integrated with some of the carved wood work they relate so closely to. Clustering the works together might have been more interesting, although perhaps it would too literally echo the tapestries.

Akuas Surviving Children, El Anatsui, 1996
  • Photo courtesy Jane Katcher and Peter Harholdt
  • “Akua’s Surviving Children,” El Anatsui, 1996

But the layout provides great moments as well, particularly with Anatsui’s varied floor sculpture. The best room contains “Akua’s Surviving Children” (1996), a gathering of figures made from driftwood, along a wall facing the “Peak Project” (1999), which is a set of waist-high roughly conical shapes made of the linked tops of Peak brand condensed milk cans. Each of these ensembles has twenty or so pieces in it. Anatsui gives vague suggestions as to their arrangement and the general shape of the peaks, but nothing documented or definite.

During a residency in Denmark commemorating the abolition of the African slave trade, Anatsui made the procession “Akua” by gathering driftwood from the shore and assembling his figures in an old gun foundry nearby. Each peak of the “Peak Project” is actually a flat, 2’x4’ rectangle of wire-joined can tops, picked up by a corner and twisted and jostled into a pointed shape that stands on its own. As refrigeration is uncommon throughout African nations, condensed milk is more of a staple in some areas than fresh cow’s milk, which goes bad so quickly. In a room together, the dark, silent witnesses of “Akua” confront the gaudy, sharp peaks, which could represent a threatening landscape or a golden memory of a lost homeland. You feel this strong tension as you walk between the stands of sculptures that seem to be inevitably heading toward each other.

The last room in the exhibition contains another sculptural array: the monumental “Open(ing) Market” (2004). Some 1,767 small metal boxes sit open on the floor, all facing in the same direction. Made by local tinkers from metal containers (brand names include StarKist, CoffeeChoc, and Nestle’s Milo drink), their cavities are different colors and patterns but their tops are all painted the same, giving a lenticular effect as one walks around the perimeter of the room they fill. That walk enacts the breathless moment in which a market’s stalls all simultaneously open for the day’s business.

A tour of When I Last Wrote to You About Africa would be incomplete without a visit to the film gallery. Eight documentaries each a few minutes long give glimpses into Anatsui’s workshop and process, which requires teams of craftspeople to produce the fundamental units of his tapestries. Footage of Anatsui reordering the planks of a wooden wall piece and directing his assistants in arranging and assembling a large tapestry illustrates the precedence of the creative act over the final artifact. Seeing him throw sections of tapestries skidding across the workshop floor only to scoot them around with his feet drives home the fact that his materials are never an end in themselves. They could just as well have been something else.