Two African artists stand out amidst a crop of some of the most outstanding contemporary artists from around the world assembled by London’s October Gallery in its Transvangarde exhibition. Beverly Andrews visited the show.
The October Gallery’s Transvangarde series continues its quest to bring together indigenous artists from the emerging world and give them a wider exposure. Its current show includes artists from as far afield as China, Nepal, Ghana and the Congo and presents some of the most dazzling contemporary art work from around the globe.
The two artists who stand out in this group are both African. One is the illustrious, acclaimed Ghanaian veteran, El Anatsui, an artist who has very much been in the vanguard of contemporary African art. He is joined in this wonderful exhibition by the new emerging Congolese artist, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, whose startlingly original work is very much a show highlight.
The artistic titan of this show would have to be El Anatsui, a graduate of the College of Art, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. His ability to create beautiful art from aluminium bottle tops has been marvelled at by art critics from around the world for decades now.
El Anatsui has toured the world with many large-scale shows, including in 2007, when he transformed the facade of the Palazzo Fortuny museum in Venice by draping it in a shimmering wall sculpture.
His large-scale works appeared in the 2010 show, A Fateful Journey: Africa in the Works of El Anatsui at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan, and also in the retrospective of his work, When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.
As part of the 2012 Paris Triennale, El Anatsui transformed the entire facade of Le Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris with his striking work, Broken Bridge.
In 2013, the Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA, exhibited the touring solo exhibition, Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, presented the artist with the prestigious Charles Wollaston Award for his work, TSIATSIA – searching for connection, which covered the entire facade of the RA building.
Five Decades, which in 2015 premiered at The School (Jack Shainman Gallery) in Kinderhook, New York, toured to Carriageworks (in association with Sydney Festival), Sydney, Australia, in 2016. And a major work, Kindred Viewpoints, enveloped the facade of El Badi Palace during the 2016 Marrakech Biennale.
El Anatsui’s work is not just startlingly original, it also demonstrates his ability to document black life through the use of materials most often discarded, but which he gives a new life to.
He states: “Art is a reflection on life. Life isn’t something we can cut and fix. It’s always in a state of flux.” And although he gives galleries a great deal of freedom in how they display his work, it also places a great deal of responsibility on their shoulders.
Lisa Binder, the curator of contemporary art at the Museum of African Art, comments: “As a curator that sounds amazing but it is actually terrifying to have no direction on how to install. You’re simultaneously grateful to El and ungrateful.”
Discussing his use of everyday materials, he says: “Not just oil paint from a tube, I can’t relate to that well. I would rather go for something people have used. Then there is a link between me and the other people who have touched that piece.”
In 2015 El Anatsui was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 56th International Exhibition of the Biennale di Venezia, and he was honoured with the Praemium Imperiale Award for Sculpture in 2017, in Tokyo. Seeing his work on display here, you very much understand why he is seen as being the artist who brought African contemporary art to the world.
Ilunga’s enigmatic painting
While El Anatsui is very much a veteran, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga is the show’s breakout visual artist. His almost futuristic work seems completely at odds with the country he comes from, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Recalling his earliest influences, he says, “I was six years old when I first saw people practising painting. There was an atelier [studio or workshop] in front of my school.” Ilunga says there were no printing facilities in Kinshasa at the time so artists used to reproduce posters of American movies for clients to put up outside cinemas.
“I started to do the same,” he says, “reproducing comics, posters, music album covers. When I was 10-12 years old, people started to recognise my work and I was getting commissions from small advertising companies and shops. At 19-20 years old I went to the Institute of Fine Arts in Kinshasa and that was the period I really started to be conscious about my artistic skills.”
However, he became disillusioned and left to form M’Pongo, a collective of young artists including Peter Kalala, Ester Moyi, Bob Nelson and Junior Lofoka.
Ilunga also organised exhibitions in the country as well as abroad, including at the French Institute Gallery in Brazzaville, Congo, and the Biennale of Contemporary African Art in Senegal, 2014.
When you look at his work, it becomes clear why an established institution would not be an easy fit, since the work is futuristic in style and seems to positively embrace technology, while still seeking to encompass its traditional roots.
The country’s turbulent history has shaped most of its artists, including Ilunga. “Congo has always been the same Congo,” he says. “The country is always in some chaos, as if there was a mechanism we triggered and [it] does not stop creating confusion. Always into crisis, fragile, brutal, fast, yet warm. It’s a country where you really have to force yourself to find your place in the society. I don’t think that war has actually changed Congolese art, but certainly [it] has given some new subjects. The exploitation of copper, cobalt and tantalum mines influenced so many artists’ work, including myself. We open the question of the political responsibility of it. I take a lot of inspiration from what I live [through] in Congo.”
When I point to the fact that African art (as well as art from the black diaspora in general, such as the work of Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat) is now in many cases outselling the art of white contemporaries (Basquiat in particular is the highest-selling contemporary artist in the world), Ilunga is not surprised and says: “Technological development (has) contributed to the advertisement of African art on an international level. African artists make very sincere and direct work, giving to the international scene something it hasn’t seen before – with an original look at their country and history. Many museums and private collections have exhibited the same things again and again; this is new.”