With five decades of El Anatsui’s work on view at Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School, in upstate New York, we turn back to June 2008, when Barbara Pollack profiled the Ghanaian-born artist for ARTnews. Anatsui, who won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement earlier this year at the Venice Biennale, is known for his large-scale, abstract metal sculptures. As Pollack points out in her profile, the joy of Anatsui’s work is that it is so ambiguous, and that it can literally be seen in so many different ways—Anatsui’s sculptures can be hung on a wall or on shown on the floor. Pollack’s full profile of Anatsui follows below.—Alex Greenberger
“The New Razzle-Dazzle”
By Barbara Pollack
Using bright-colored caps and golden bands from discarded liquor bottles, African sculptor El Anatsui weaves rich ‘gem’-encrusted tapestries
The rich gold- and jewel-toned tapestry undulating on the wall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is not an African tribal weaving. Nor is it a painting by Gustav Klimt. Composed of strips of metal stitched together with copper wire, the piece most resembles a bolt of kente cloth, native to Ghana, whose weavings symbolically unite history, philosophy, literature, morality, religion, political thought, and esthetics. The tapestry is actually a work by Africa’s leading sculptor, El Anatsui, a master at meshing indigenous influences and contemporary materials and ideas.
“My work fits into a variety of categories in most museums,” says the artist, who was in New York earlier this year for the installation of Between Earth and Heaven (2006) in the Met’s Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, devoted to the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “If they have an African gallery, it fits into it, and if they have a contemporary wing, it fits there also.” But Anatsui is particularly happy at the Met, where his work is surrounded by traditional ritual and ceremonial objects. “It’s like the past is facing the present, and it shows that art creation didn’t ever come to a stop in Africa,” he says.”
Met curator Alisa LaGamma, who chose the sculpture for the museum, recalls, “I was just dazzled by the beauty of the work. I thought it would be a very lovely and eloquent bridge between the kinds of historical works from Africa already in our collection and a lot of the contemporary innovations that have developed in response to those forms.”
Indeed, Anatsui’s career parallels a growing appreciation for contemporary African art over the past 20 years, even before artists like Ike Ude and Odili Donald Odita put that continent on the art map.
Born in Anyako, Ghana, in 1944, and today based in Nsukka, Nigeria, the tall, affable bachelor has had his work shown worldwide, most notably last summer at the Venice Biennale. There he hung Dusuasa I and Dusuasa II (both 2007), 20-by-30-foot tapestries that rippled like jewel-encrusted robes, between the classical columns of the Arsenale, and Fresh and Fading Memories (2007) was installed on the exterior of the Palazzo Fortuny on the Grand Canal. All of these shimmering pieces were made from the artist’s favorite material: metal seals covering the caps of liquor bottles. As Robert Storr, the Biennale’s artistic director, comments in the exhibition’s catalogue, “El Anatsui demonstrates that the smallest bits of scrap metal can map fields of colour and texture as lovely as a painting by Georges Seurat.”
Beyond their sheer beauty, the pieces reflect the artist’s personal history as well as the legacy of slavery and colonialism. Anatsui was 13 years old when Ghana achieved independence in 1957. As a child, he navigated both traditional and colonial worlds. While he watched his father and brothers weave kente cloth as part of their Ewe heritage, Anatsui was being educated in a British-modeled system that paid scant attention to indigenous traditions.
He studied at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, earning a B.A. in art and a postgraduate in art education. As a student, he was exposed primarily to European painting, but he spent much of his free time at the National Cultural Centre in Kumasi, which offered workshops in traditional crafts. Between 1969 and 1975, he lectured at a teacher-training college in Winneba, where he was fascinated by the wood carvings he saw in the local markets. The techniques used to make the carvings, including burning motifs into wood with a hot knife, turned up in his earliest works.
In 1975 Anatsui was appointed to teach in the department of fine and applied arts at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, where he continues today as a professor of sculpture. The department was headed by Uche Okeke, an influential artist who argued against formal British training in favor of a “natural synthesis” of indigenous elements with topical issues. Anatsui adopted the phrase sankofa, a Ghanaian term meaning “go back and pick,” to describe this process of reclaiming one’s roots in the act of making art. For the next decade he worked primarily in ceramics, making pieces inspired by objects he saw in Nigeria’s museums. Then, in 1980, he was awarded a residency at the Cummington Community of Arts in Massachusetts, and he turned back to wood, this time using a chain saw and hot irons to fashion wall hangings made from multiple panels.
“The idea of trying a new medium brings fresh challenges,” Anatsui says. “I feel that each medium has its own language and changes the way that you want to express things.” So, too, do new places. “Art doesn’t grow in a vacuum,” he adds. “When you leave your normal domicile and travel, a lot of times your feeling for your original home grows stronger; the distance can make you reach new levels of empathy or feeling for it, so having a distance from any usual terrain provided an influx of ideas.”
Perhaps his most famous work from the late 1980s and early ’90s addresses the erosion of cultural values. Created for the international artists’ workshop at Arte Amazonas in Brazil, and later exhibited at the Modern Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Erosion (1992) is a wood column nearly ten feet tall, standing in a circle of wood shards. It is intricately carved, burned, and gouged, as if self-destructing.
Beyond its social connotations, Erosion can also be viewed either as a modern rendition of a traditional totemic object or as a reinterpretation of Minimalist sculpture.
By the time Anatsui created Erosion, he was already attracting attention outside of Nigeria, participating in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s first show of contemporary african art in 1990, and then in the first presentation of African art at the Venice Biennale the following summer. As Grace Stanislaus, curator of both exhibitions, who met Anatsui in Nigeria in 1988, explains, “He had a cosmopolitanism and cleverness and an understanding of art and art history that was very compelling.”
His exhibition record reflects both these qualities and the increased receptivity worldwide to art coming from places other than the United States and Europe.
The artist offers this quick summary of his early career development. “First I exhibited in Ghana, at my school, then in Accra in the big city, then I moved to Nigeria, showing at my university before exhibiting in Lagos, which eventually led to exhibiting in group shows outside of Africa.” Starting in 1995 he began to have solo shows at October Gallery in London, which continues to represent him, and in 1996, he began showing in New York, at the Contemporary African Gallery and at Skoto Gallery, and in 2005 at David Krut. Since last year he has been represented in New York by Jack Shainman.
As the ’90s progressed, Anatsui’s sculptures became increasingly complex, involving collections of carved wood posts or panels. Some of these refer to migration and globalization. Visa Queue (1992), for example, consists of caved blocks of Nigerian woods assembled into a seemingly endless line of miniature figures awaiting their fate. In The Ancestors Converged Again, faces are carved into the tops of 23 branches and poles cut from a variety of trees, then hung as a group of ragtag figures across a gallery wall. Other works, like his ’90s “Ancient Cloth Series,” composed of wood slats, evoke textiles. His pieces now sell for between $100,000 and $500,000.
It was in 1999, in the bush outside Nsukka, that Anatsui came upon a garbage bag filled with the kind of metal seals found on liquor bottles in Africa: red, green, black, and yellow labels printed on gold- or silver-colored backing. This material, which the artist sometimes crushes into circles resembling bottle caps or cuts into half-inch strips, inspired his recent, much acclaimed sculptures. Found objects, such as tins from evaporated milk, old metal graters, and discarded painting plates, have also turned up in his work, conveying the spirit and survival strategies of Africa, a place where citizens recycle materials out of necessity, not choice.
“I saw the bottle caps as relating to the history of Africa in the sense that when the earliest group of Europeans came to trade, they brought along rum originally from the West Indies that then went to Europe and finally to Africa as three legs of the triangular trip,” explains Anatsui. “The drink caps that I use are not made in Europe; they are all made in Nigeria, but they symbolize bringing together the histories of these two continents.”
Often the names of Nigerian liquor brands can be spotted in the weave of the artist’s constructions—brands with names like Dark Sailor or King Solomon resonate with the history of slavery. (A more recent brand, Ecomog, is named for the West African armed forces established in 1990 to intervene in the Liberian civil war.) Anatsui says he is not making these works simply to condemn colonialism or to comment on recent controversies in African history. He acknowledges with a smile, “I speak English; I don’t know if I would have spoken English if that era had not occurred.”
Most recently, he is celebrating the opening of “El Anatsui: Gawu” on view through September 2, at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., the final stop of the exhibition’s U.S. tour. In the catalogue Anatsui explains that the “ga” in “Gawu” alludes to the use of metal and that “wu” is a term for a cloak; together the words describe the seven works in the exhibition. In the sculpture Versatility, the liquor brand names are prominently displayed, but the pattern is reminiscent of the motifs in traditional cloths, such as kente and adinkra (which is used for funeral rites). Crumbling Wall (2000) transforms the graters used to prepare gari, the West African grain made from cassava flour, into a sagging architectural structure composed of rusted metal. As with all of Anatsui’s works, including his early wood wall reliefs, location affects how the pieces are hung, says Christine Mullen Kreamer, curator at the National Museum of African Art. “Each work comes with incredibly detailed instructions.” Tall works may hang in a high-ceilinged room or be spread out on the floor in a gallery of lesser height.
“I still insist that they not be mounted flat,” he says. “I want to show the softness, because this transgresses the stereotype of metal as a rigid medium.” On the other hand, after a decade of having critics identify his work with kente cloth, Anatsui resists the analogy as being too formulaic. “The bottle caps tend to replicate the colors of kente cloth,” he says, “but when I work, I think more about sculpture than those issues.”
Nevertheless, color is a key factor in his works, as in Bleeding Takari II (2007), a 20-foot-wide wall relief shown last winter at Shainman. With its large splotches of red metal strips pooling into the floor, the work looks as if it is spilling blood.
Anatsui is satisfied that his current medium perfectly conveys his ideas. Referring to the Dusuasa works he made for Venice, which are now owned by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, he explains: “Sasa means ‘difference,’ or something made of different portions. The word literally comes from textiles, like when you have a sheet that’s made from patchwork. But for me, it also celebrates the beauty of people coming together as one.” Pointing out that maps of Europe and Africa both look like patchwork quilts, he concludes, “We have more in common than we think.”