The world’s highest-earning African artist, El Anatsui, returns to London for a solo show shortly (12 February-28 March) at the coveted October Gallery. Juliet Highet explains why the world cannot get enough of the inimitable Ghanaian maestro.
In the catalogue for El Anatsui’s participation at the 2013 Royal Academy’s summer exhibition, where the entire façade was covered with one of his giant, shimmering metal curtains, Gerard Houghton wrote: “There is a master in our midst.” The breathtaking work, TSIATSIA – searching for connection, was so extensive that it obliterated even the logo of that historic London landmark. Some described the effect as “wall sculptures”, “metal sheets”, or as Houghton says: “curtains of light… seen from afar these gleaming fabrics looked like sumptuous cloths of gold: rich, opulent creations of sparkling splendour.
“But as one moved closer, the eye was attracted by the smaller-scale patterns, and the variety of techniques by which the elements were arranged and stitched together. Finally right in front of people’s noses, the secret was revealed – they had been enthralled by pre-fabricated bottle-tops, the glittering colours no more than specious brand names from the trade: “Liquor Headmaster” and “Perfect Dry Gin”.
This use of bottle-tops and their branding by El (a name he gave himself, which has no connection with his Ghanaian Ewe heritage), relates to the slave trade that imported alcohol to Africa. His early work was specifically themed around indigenous African culture, his concern about the erosion of its traditions by external forces, with alien values such as “consumption” or indeed over-consumption.
As he has commented, many African countries do not recycle manufactured objects like tin cans, discarded printing plates, cassava graters, and of course bottle-tops, all of which he has used in the creation of new works of art. Describing how his complex process of recycling the cast-off objects of urban life evolved, he says: “I return them to use by giving them a different function – a higher function – maybe even the ultimate function. Each bottle-top returning as an object of contemplation has the capacity to reveal to us a more profound understanding of life than it ever did as a stopper (on a bottle).”
Over time, his highly committed message about Africa has expanded to a concern for all humanity, and led to an increasing international audience for his work, while still drawing inspiration and materials from Africa, where he continues to exhibit, as he always has done.
With the increase in global recognition, he has in a sense become a cosmopolitan artist, though he says: “When I come to the West, I encounter works of art which not only excite me, but also enable me to understand better things in my own environment when I go back.”
In 2007, El stunned the international art world with his immense metal sheet Fresh & Fading Memories, covering the façade of the historic Palazzo Fortuny in Venice for the highly prestigious Venice Biennale, where he also showed two evanescent wall hangings inside the Biennale art fair venue, dazzling all beholders in a darkly lit space.
Since then, ever larger works have moved from inner to outer spaces, transforming buildings in installations assembled from thousands of small metal pieces, like glimmering tesserae mosaics reflecting their environments. El also covered the Renaissance-style frontage of the French Museum of Fashion with Broken Bridge 1. This colossal installation was reconfigured in 2012 to hang in west Manhattan, its mirror-like surface now reflecting brownstone buildings and skyscrapers.
So where did it all begin? Born and brought up in Ghana, even before he could read, El was fascinated by the graphic forms of literature, and also, while attending college he was drawn to the abstract graphic designs stamped on adinkra fabric. “When I saw adinkra symbols, signs with names and meanings, I thought that without presenting a human figure one could convey meaning.” His father was a master weaver of kente cloth, an Asante tradition, though he was not drawn to creating this art form. And after his mother died, he did not grow up with his father, but with his uncle, an ardent Christian.
El’s curiosity about African cultures moved him beyond Ewe and other aspects of Ghanaian heritage, extending through research in books and museums into a wider spectrum of African history and culture.
Fed up with studying in Kumasi during the late 1960s, where an English art school curriculum was taught, he declared: “There has to be something different”, and in 1975 he moved to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where there was a supportive intellectual and artistic community, and where eventually, he became Head of Sculpture. He had landed in a radical department, where a movement called “Natural Synthesis” was underway, re-interpreting indigenous cultural traditions through modern techniques and equipment, though El rejected the use of imported artists’ materials.
His first solo exhibition was in 1976 in Nsukka with art carved in wood. “I started from Africa – in Ghana (where) I was fairly known, (then) I started exhibiting in Nsukka, then Enugu, from there (going) to Lagos, then to London, New York and other places.” As Susan Vogel, author of El Anatsui: Art & Life puts it: “Prominence in Africa is the essential beginning of Anatsui’s journey to international visibility from his base in Nsukka… Anatsui is the first and only black African artist to achieve global recognition while living and working continuously in Africa.”
In 1975, after he had settled in Nsukka, El started working with ceramics, creating a seminal series called Broken Pots. “A pot is a very versatile thing – something which stands for life itself,” he said then and referring to his current creation of metal curtains, he added: “I think I use broken pieces because of my eclectic life history… It’s not one homogenous progression, it’s been in bits and pieces – not growing up in my own nuclear family, and not even living in my own country, and finally, now, travelling all over the place. I think it’s an attempt to put all this together.”
During the 80s and 90s El created wall panels and standing figure sculptures. These were made of tropical hardwood, reconfiguring found objects like old house posts and used mortars with charged history, transforming them into ancestral spirits and other traditional archetypes. Some pieces were scorched, so that they look charred, which El has likened to the injuries inflicted on Africans. In 1980, in the USA, he began using power tools, particularly the chainsaw, which he describes as having a “language of violence, of tearing, of dividing.”
From the late 90s onwards metal began to overtake wood as his significant medium. “The metal phase started with the cassava graters, followed by the milk tins, and now the bottle- tops,” said El.
Susan Vogel indicates that his Waste Paper Bags installation alludes to “migration, displacement and nomadism… a central theme of Anatsui’s life and art.” Indeed, with all the travelling he does nowadays, he calls himself a “cultural nomad”.
The early metal works were attached with copper wire, joining them into sheets and giving them a non-fixed form, a malleability essential to the metal curtains to come, and a characteristic unique to El’s work.
He says: “In effect the process was subverting the stereotype of metal as a stiff, rigid medium and rather showing it as a soft, pliable, almost sensuous material capable of attaining immense dimensions and being adapted to specific spaces.” The breakthrough that was to lead to international stature came with El’s discovery of a bag full of tin lids, which along with the next chance find of another bag, this time full of bottle-tops, both of which are widely available in Nigeria, provided the multiples essential for the metal curtains he began to create. It was 1998 when El came across “this curious bag in the bushes (of bottle-tops)… I thought of the objects’ links to my continent and the rest of Europe” (whose traders originally brought them to Africa). “The idea eventually came to me that by stitching them together, I could get them to articulate some statement… I discovered that the result resembled a real fabric… The colours replicated those for traditional kente cloths.”
The new medium was capable of a vast variety of patterns, and a delicacy of detail, a marriage between painting and sculpture. They could be of unprecedented size, variable in their hanging, which could alter their meaning, and easily moveable across continents.
“The amazing thing about working with these metallic ‘fabrics’ is that the poverty of the materials used in no way precludes the telling of rich and wonderful stories,” he says.
Gallery curators, collectors, and critics have always wondered how an artist of his age (now 70 years old), living in an obscure Nigerian town, has been responsible for challenging classifications of painting, sculpture and abstraction. Many have now accepted the innovative concept that African artists don’t have to create art that looks “African”.
In 1995 the October Gallery mounted his first solo show in the UK, and that same year he exhibited in Tokyo and New York. Since then he has become one of the most influential, challenging contemporary artists on the world stage – and the highest earner of all African artists.
His work has been bought for prestigious public venues, such as the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum, New York. “(My) audience is made up of people from all over the world… and whoever understands it is a kindred spirit.”
A quiet, modest man, El’s empathy and humanity are clearly evident in his installation Their Fateful Journey Nowhere in which figures are bent with work, exhaustion and age. He says: “I want to get to a level where [my work] really moves [people]. What I mean by moving people is not moving them to tears – well! If tears, why not?” Clearly, we have “a master in our midst”.
El Anatsui: Art & Life by Susan Mullin Vogel is published by Prestel (ISBN: 978-3-7913-4650-2).