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Video transcript

we're in the Museum of African art part of the Smithsonian on the mall in Washington DC and we're looking at a spectacular wall hanging by a very well-known contemporary African artist from Ghana this work is by Ellen atsui who while born and gone and raised there spent most of his time as an artist and in cyka Nigeria we're looking at a recent work which is at first glance a textile and textile is important in Ghana and has a long history we're probably most familiar with Kente cloth the predominant color in Kente is gold which was associated with royalty and the Ashanti control of the gold trade and so El Anatsui II is using gold in this work to give it that sense of royal reverence and authority what we're looking at are small pieces of metal that are reclaimed most often from liquor bottles that have been pounded and then wired together which returns us to traditional West African culture the importance of alcohol and of a libation in many traditional societies in West Africa there is a strong belief and importance of venerating and honoring ancestors especially when one eats and so before taking that first bite or that first drink you pour libations you pour a bit of palm wine or some other kind of alcohol to the ancestors just dribbling a bit onto the ground and so we have a reference here to that tradition this was refuse and what the artist has done is to collect these items and to transform them now to something that has powerful meaning and is stunningly beautiful this sculpture this textile was made up of pieces that is smaller square sheets of this material that would have been created by El Anatsui and today more so by men he employs in his workshop who create these squares and then lay him out and Ellen Tsui will often climb up on a ladder or look from above to figure out how to arrange them and put them together and he may travel with this piece and put it up or it might just be shipped and it's really up to the cure how its going to be hung so in each new location it takes on a different form notice it's not flat it really is intended to be sculptural and come out into our space I'm really interested in the idea that this is something that was done not only by the artist but also by his workshop in the West we often think of that as detracting from the value of the object because the artist is not solely responsible for the work but in African culture traditional cloth was often a more communal activity absolutely and so elements ooh-ee why we want that name to be recognized with this piece of modern art really acknowledges that there are other people that come together to make this possible one thing that he also mentioned is that these objects have had a life before and in fact they've been touched and handled manipulated by someone and that harkens back to a belief system can find us among the ashanti for example this idea is Tsun Tsun or an aura or an energy that gets transferred into objects that people handle most often so it has an energy and electricity a sort of vitality of this history those words energy vitality are so appropriate just visually to the surface look at the way that the light plays over it you called it sculptural it is not a flat surface it intentionally bulges there are valleys and hills and our eye rides over this really sensuous surface we have to remember that this is receipt Clea this is a piece that's completely recycled from materials that would have otherwise ended up in large trash heaps just outside of almost any major city in Africa El Anatsui he's using his traditional visual vocabulary his heritage to make sense of this very complicated idea of consumerism and capitalism that is such a part of people's lives in Africa today you
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