Versatility (2006) – El Anatsui
Versatility was created with pliable aluminum strips from thousands of empty liquor bottles brought to Africa from Europe during first contact. It is a powerful piece because it represents the introduction of alcohol to the African people as well as the assimilation that followed with the advent of the “White Man’s Burden” – the quest to impart Western civilization to non-white cultures. It is designed and woven in the image of a Kente cloth robe, made by the Asante people of Ghana and the Ewe people of Ghana and Togo. Anatsui was influenced heavily by his father and brothers who wove Kente cloth for their family. I find it compelling that the men wove these robes that were used for special occasions.
The piece makes me wonder how many bottles of liquor were drunk that contributed to this piece and in what circumstance the artist acquire the labels and aluminum used. What conversations took place during the drinking of each bottle? Anatsui claims the piece hold the idea of “adaptability and the twists and turns of human existence”. I see imperialism such as had occurred in Alaska when western civilization brought alcohol here. I wonder if Africans suffer the same alcoholism Alaska Natives do. In any case, this piece and others of Anatsui’s have political and social meanings that hit you in the gut and leave lingering thoughts of historical events.