Bent 2018 Mild Steel Wire Rope. Picture: SUPPLIED
Bent 2018 Mild Steel Wire Rope. Picture: SUPPLIED

In the 1980s it was a fashionable sideshow at galleries, rather feebly called "fibre art". It was art-making that used the stuff usually employed in industries like upholstery and dress making or hung up as fantasies in kiddies’ rooms.

Tapestries have a distinctly historical tradition, but contemporary arty hotheads like Athi-Patra Ruga have taken it to amusing new levels.

There are two exceptional exhibitions in Cape Town that demonstrate gloriously how "house stuff" — once far outside of the high craft of culture — can be unshackled, reinvented as tapestries and invade gallery spaces to tease the spirit.

With the youthful Standard Bank Young Artist of 2018, Igshaan Adams, and the brilliant Ghanaian art professor El Anatsui at play in town simultaneously, serious art lovers will want to see both exhibitions, to experience the material mastery of an established performer against the dense thinking of a younger adventurer.

There is delightful interplay and echoes in Anatsui’s Default made of bottle caps and printing plates (2016) and Adams’s Bent created from mild steel, wire, rope, cotton offcuts, twine and beads (2018).

Their large tactile surfaces seem to collapse partly from their own weight and presence. Both seem to negotiate tentatively with their surrounds, and wield mysterious power of shimmer and sparks of undiscovered colour. They allude to theatre, to altar and to the mysteries of long ago.

EL Default. Picture: SUPPLIED
EL Default. Picture: SUPPLIED

Anatsui, 74, was recently described by The Guardian’s art critic as providing the real suss and sparkle for a show at London’s October Gallery.

This exhibition at the Iziko South African National Gallery — a follow-up of the show at, and courtesy of, the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg — marks the first time a substantial collection of Anatsui’s dazzling wall pieces are on public view in SA.

Famous for using thin metal plates recycled from the alcohol industry — bottle tops, foil, wrap — and "stitching" the tiny strips together with copper wire to create enormous, shimmering tapestries, Anatsui’s art is immediately recognisable as belonging to an individual.

Using a technique born from the realities of survival, of recycling and environmental consciousness, of make-and-do in the tradition of art povera, the best of his works have a wonderful presence. The works on show under the title Meyina (I am Going) are truly splendid, evoking both a delicate lightness in gentle drapes as well as a solid, weighty, metallic sturdiness, like closed-off and protected portals.

Curated by Bisi Silva, director at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos (Anatsui has been living and working in Nsukka, Nigeria, since 1975), the exhibition includes several wall pieces made from reused wood.

These smaller works reinforce the idea that Anatsui’s often majestic hangings suggest curtains covering spaces to be discovered, places where we can unlock our imaginations.

Adams, a protégé of the Ruth Prowse School of Art in Woodstock, follows the footsteps that Anatsui took to invent his art from what is found, from the matter and material signals of his immediate environment.

He professes to the deeply personal involvement and the spiritual quest of sculptural art making and performance. His current show at the lovely new Blank Projects space is titled Al Latîf (The Subtle One), one of many names attributed to Allah, and the self-reflective mysticism is propelled by many individual titled pieces.

In particular, the reference to a 15th century mystic poem which heralds weaving — "with care and discernment/ The cloth of Thy Name" — gives an engaging density to the set of three works titled Conduit.

Circular soft structures woven sock-like from rope, twine, cotton and nylon with the assistance of township women (he supports the Philani art centre) have the bold presence of things that hint at important practical purpose and yet exude a wonderful surreality of bumpy folds, exposed colour and pointless tassels. This is soft sculpture with serious, unworldly intent.

Though Adams has over his budding, bright career explored many different material and media avenues, often with performance and physical presence, this show comprises only wall pieces, with the exception of the less impressive Rahma on the floor. There is a striking confidence about the way he and his helpers deal with components of "weaving".

It will be interesting to see what he is preparing for the exhibition that will showcase him as young artist at this year’s Grahamstown festival.

• El Anatsui’s Meyina is at the Iziko South African National Gallery until April. Igshaan Adams’s Al Latîf is at Blanc Projects until March 10.

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