With its lofty industrial proportions, Sydney’s multi-arts centre, Carriageworks, has the potential to dwarf the contemporary exhibitions within. Not so with internationally acclaimed Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s first major Australian survey, organically inhabiting the expansive foyer area and the adjoining Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Presented in association with The Sydney Festival, the timely retrospective (Anatsui was awarded the esteemed Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2015 Venice Biennale) spans five decades of work from the 1970s. It comprises over 30 pieces including early ceramics, drawings and woodcarvings incorporating West African adinkra symbols alongside Anatsui’s sculptures and monumental wall and floor installations, merging both sculptural and painterly techniques.

These captivating works are created with folded and crumpled pieces of discarded metal in a myriad of colours. West African printing plates, tin boxes, assorted alcohol bottle labels and thousands of recycled bottle caps are meticulously bound together, usually with copper wire, to create luminous yet weighty tapestries draped on walls with heavy folds, sometimes cascading onto the surfaces beneath. Others are poured across the polished concrete floor with ripples shimmering through their densely patterned fields.

Together, they recall bold African ceremonial cloths, ornate wall mosaics and weavings from other cultures – even the contours of natural landscapes and cartography – and portray universal concerns given the medium of re-used objects. Consumption and waste come immediately to mind; but equally, as does the optimistic notion of regeneration. Subtle, suggestive themes of colonisation, migration and cultural exchange are also apparent. A large abstract floor sculpture depicting a tarnished unraveling crown, for example, most eloquently questions the state of post-colonial Africa. 

The exhibition is the first Schwartz Carriageworks project following gallerist Anna Schwartz’s recent gift of AUD$500,000 to the gallery, to develop a new five-year series of major international and Australian visual arts projects within the venue.