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visual arts

Ghanaian visual artist El Anatsui and his work at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

El Anatsui thinks it's apt that Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum is the premiere venue for a major retrospective of his work that will be touring North America over the next three years.

Toronto, after all, was the first city the Ghana-born artist "came to when I travelled out of Africa for the first time," he recalled during an interview earlier this week. That was in the summer of 1978, when, as a 34-year-old aspiring sculptor and lecturer in the department of fine and applied arts at the University of Nigeria in Nssuka, he attended the 10th International Sculpture Conference at York University.

The Toronto premiere - it is Anatsui's first solo show in Canada, and features 60 pieces in various media - is something of a coup for the ROM. The retrospective, subtitled When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, was originally scheduled to open this year in the new Museum for African Art on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. But because that space is still under construction, the debut slot was offered to the ROM, where the museum's Institute for Contemporary Culture had earlier expressed interest in being part of the Anatsui tour.

Now 66, Anatsui has been a practising artist for more than four decades, much of that as a well-known figure among the cognoscenti of contemporary African art. But his international profile has heightened considerably in the past eight years, thanks to his audacious foray into shimmering, highly colourful metallic tapestries, which he makes from liquor-bottle caps and sleeves linked by copper wire.

Trained as a sculptor, Anatsui had long used "common" materials in his work, including wood, ceramics, even discarded lids from tins of evaporated milk. But the chance discovery in 2002 of a large bag of discarded caps for bottles of whisky, schnapps, rum, gin and vodka - while Anatsui was walking near the southern Nigerian university - triggered what proved to be a fruitful, not to mention provocative, string of associations.

As Anatsui has noted, alcohol was one of the first commodities "brought by [European traders]to exchange for goods in Africa." Later, rum became a staple of the transatlantic slave trade - produced in the Caribbean from cane cut by slaves, bottled in England, shipped to Africa.

Assembling the hangings is laborious. Anatsui uses several studio assistants to flatten thousands of aluminum caps and bottle sleeves - red, yellow, white, silver, brown, blue - which are then placed on the floor for Anatsui to arrange into one or more compositions. The resulting work can be large - a 2009 hanging, Three Continents, on view at the ROM, is almost five metres long and 2.5 metres wide - but surprisingly curtain-ish in weight and amazingly malleable.

Anatsui acknowledges that "the colour of the bottle caps happens to be the colour of certain fabrics common to my part of the world … But I'm not interested in fabric per se. It's the format or the form of the cloth: that it's free, that you can put it on a wall, squeeze it into a small ball, drape it on the floor, anything.

"When I initially started working on these," he laughs, "my favourite way of photographing them was to put them on hedges, like cloth drying."

Western eyes will "read" elements of Arte Povera, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, even Gustav Klimt into Anatsui's constructions. Anatsui, who has travelled extensively in Europe and the United States, readily acknowledges "the visual similarity." He stresses, however, that the congruence is very much "a matter of coincidence. My intention was born in Africa; I am going on a path completely without reference [to Western antecedents or influences]

"It has," he adds, "something to do with my belief that life is not a cut-and-dried phenomenon, that it's something which is constantly in a state of flux, that my search has been toward a form that captures this."

El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa opens today and continues through Jan. 2. The ROM has purchased, for its permanent collection, Straying Continents, a new Anatsui wall piece that measures 12 by five metres. It will be unveiled today.; 416-586-8000.