El Anatsui : Triumphant Scale

Plongée dans l’univers de El Anatsui, un des plus grands artistes de l’Afrique contemporaine.

Exhibition View. El Anatsui. Triumphant Scale, Kunstmuseum Bern, 2020.
El Anatsui. In the World But Don’t Know the World, 2009. 560 x 1000 cm. Aluminium and copper wire. Sigg Collection. Photo © Alexia Green 2020

Art is a replica of life and life is not a fixed thing. It’s something which is always in a state of flux, it’s something which is capable of changing and I want my art to reflect something like that.

El Anatsui

The Ghanaian artist El Anatsui is one of the greatest living sculptors of his generation. From wood carvings to the monumental, trademark wall pieces made from found metal bottlecaps, his inventive incarnations transform discarded materials and honour both African aesthetic traditions and Western art forms.

His continuous practice and experimentation earned him a Lifetime Achievement award at the 56th Venice Biennale. During last year’s event in the Italian city, his work was exhibited with other artists in Ghana’s inaugural pavilion. In 2016, he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale Award for Sculpture by the Japan Art Association.

With works found in major international museums and art collections, his reach is universal. Yet El Anatsui remains in the Nigerian town of Nsukka where he has lived and worked since 1975. In his 2016 review of the artist at Carriageworks, Sydney, art critic John McDonald wrote : “It has taken many years to find artists who can occupy a prominent place on the global circuit while choosing to reside outside the metropolitan centres….. El Anatsui has conquered the planet while living and working in the Nigerian university town of Nsukka.”

It reveals much about the man who was born in 1944 in Anyako, a small town in the Volta Region of Ghana on the former Gold Coast. He was thirteen years old when Ghana gained independence in 1957, growing up in the Sixties during a pivotal time in the post-war history of the African continent. These shifting, societal influences have shaped El Anatsui’s artistic and intellectual ideas throughout his fifty year career.

“The colonial project disrupted everything about life and culture. When Ghana became independent, there was a need to go back and pick up from where we left off… trying to revive religion and culture to be able to go forward. The colonial influence remained, but the emphasis was on discovering ourselves, our self-identity”.

“You can look at the world through your eyes, or you can look at the world through your mind”

The youngest of his father’s thirty-two children, he was raised by his maternal uncle after his mother’s death, growing up surrounded by art and culture amongst brothers who were musicians and poets. El himself sang in the local choir in Keta and later played trumpet in a university jazz band. His affinity for visual art and design developed early on and he won several prizes before enrolling in the Fine Arts department at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi in 1964. With its affiliation to Goldsmiths College in London, the western focus of the university’s curriculum lacked any teaching of the origins of African art being sought at the time. In the same vein as other artists of his generation such as Ibrahim El-Salahi, El Anatsui began to pursue alternative modes of making art. His investigations at the local cultural centre in Kumasi uncovered a body of sign language and triggered the beginning of a personal mission to harness African artistic heritage and derive his own interpretations from it.

“The tradition that actually started my profession off was this collection of symbols that they called ‘Adinkra’ symbols. ‘Adinkra’ means ‘saying goodbye’. It’s actually a series of signs and symbols that are printed on textiles. In the library I read a couple of books in which there were claims that Africa did not have abstract art, or that African art is not abstract, and then I saw these signs in which you clearly see people making attempts to encapsulate abstract ideas like the oneness of God or unity. That really opened my eyes and I stayed with those signs for well over five years after I finished school”.

For El Anatsui, these markings revealed different ways of looking at the world. This affirmation to “look at the world through the mind, to try to distill essences rather than produce images” has been a vital influence in El Anatsui’s work.

“With El Anatsui, what we have is a different model of art making and art presentation. It takes a community to raise a work of art and it takes a community to present a work of art, a community of curators, and that artwork changes over time … It grows, it changes form, but hopefully does not die in the way that life operates”.

Chika Okele-Agulu, Curator Triumphant Scale

His remarkable career has been recognised in a recent touring retrospective organised by Munich’s Haus der Kunst. El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale is the largest ever exhibition by a modern or contemporary African artist in the European continent, travelling from Munich to the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha and is currently on view in the Swiss capital’s Kunstmuseum Bern. A forth venue, the Guggenheim Bilbao, is also planned.

Exhibition View. El Anatsui. Triumphant Scale, Kunstmuseum Bern, 2020.
Photo © Alexia Green 2020

Curated by Chika Okele-Agulu and the late Okwui Enwezor, in collaboration with Kathleen Bühler, curator at the Kunstmuseum, the exhibition offers insights into the origins of El Anatsui’s practice. A succession of significant historical pieces fashioned from a range of media go beyond their impressive scale and artistry to provoke discourse around the circumstances in which El Anatsui has operated.

The need to use materials including printing plates, cassava graters, milk tin lids and aluminium liquor bottle caps found within his immediate environment emerged not only as a response to the rediscovery of his own heritage but to a search for new modes of artistic representation. Initially adopting the wooden plates used to display wares in the local markets, El Anatsui used hot rods to brand central motifs and peripheral markings onto their surface. It was, he says, “a very low tech process”  to expand the meaning of a symbol.

Leaving Ghana for Nigeria in the mid-seventies, he experienced a similar movement towards cultural rediscovery. Nigerian scholars and artists including leading contemporary artist Uche Okeke were championing traditional African artforms as a resource for new work including Igbo art, folklore and ethnography. The semi-abstract, curvilinear uli designs drawn by the Igbo people of the southeastern region and stained onto the body or painted onto the sides of buildings as murals, incorporated linear forms and geometric shapes. This design aspect is exemplified in El Anatsui’s early wood carvings.

The difference that I saw between our own use of signs and especially the uli signs or drawings was this idea of use of space. Whereas in the Ghanaian usage you pack a lot of signs onto the surface, into the area, the space, in uli there’s this use of open space, animated by one single line or single point or little mark which engages the whole wall… I had to adjust my aesthetics, to now pay more attention to open space as well”.

El Anatsui. Chambers of Memory, 1977. ceramic, manganese, 40 × 26 cm. Collection of the artist, Nsukka, Nigeria
© El Anatsui. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Clay is everywhere. It’s the earth we are walking on. It’s a common thing anyone can work with.”

A series of ceramic pot sculptures in clay and manganese produced in Nigeria in the mid to late seventies typify El Anatsui’s own convictions to make art that responds to global, societal change, whilst rooted in his African heritage, drawing upon the resources that surround him. An abundance of clay coupled with the classical form of the pot and its inherent characteristics of both volume and fragility enabled alternative explorations of varying cycles of use. The Broken Pots series draws on the notion of once intact vessels, now damaged, no longer used for grain but for sacrificial offerings in local shrines.

“I thought that breaking is a form of regeneration. When you talk about breaking or destruction, you’re talking about an opportunity for something to start a new growth.”

Chambers of Memory 1977, Omen 1978, and Gbeze and Imbroglio both from 1979 exude an earthy spirituality. Monument from the same year is engraved with abstract markings and possesses the devout solidity of an ancestral statue. 

El Anatsui. Black Block, 2010. Aluminium und Kupferdraht. zwei Teile, je 525,8 x 339,1 cm, 30,39 kg Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of William K. Jacobs, Jr., by exchange, 2013.7a-b.
© El Anatsui

The link between Africa, Europe and America is very much part of what is behind my work with bottle caps.

The glimmering, metal wall hangings which today bedazzle the world’s art collectors and enthusiasts began when the artist came across a bag containing discarded bottle caps. Meticulously incorporating thousands of folded and crumpled pieces of aluminium involving tens of craftspeople to complete, they are assembled on the ground in small sections or ‘building blocks’ by the artist and his assistants before the pieces are brought together in one large composition.

“The whole thing started from my finding a strange bag in the bush. I opened it and saw these bottle caps and so I started with this idea of linking them with copper wire into extensive sheets. When I did a first piece and hung it in the middle of the studio, I saw that it could hang on about three or four strings and it was capable of creasing in ways that I found very interesting and worthy of exploration. As time went on I found that it passed from sculpture into a combination of sculpture and painting. You can achieve almost the same things as a painter would do with oil colour or acrylic or watercolour”.

Exhibition View. El Anatsui. Triumphant Scale, Kunstmuseum Bern, 2020.
Yam Mound (Peak Project), 1999. Variable, 105 sections. Each ca: 45.7 x 45.7 cm. Tin, copper wire. Photo © Alexia Green 2020

Woven into their opulent fabric is a darker tale of the harrowing past of the Gold Coast. Visible rum bottle seals refer explicitly to the trade of humans for European goods. Black Block, 2010 resembles an obsidian curtain, punctuated with flashes of red and yellow whose lustre belies the distasteful ancestral truths of colonial exchanges.

“If you get close, you see names of some of the brands of drink of alcohol that became items that were exchanged for humans who were transported to the Americas as slaves. The link between Africa, Europe and America is very much part of what is behind my work with bottlecaps. The concept of the wall, the idea that a wall is a human construct and it is done to do so many things like …. create a barrier between you and something, protect you or deprive you of your freedom”.

One of the largest works in the exhibition from 2010 is the prodigious masterpiece entitled Gravity and Grace.  It took one hundred and thirty people drawn from the local community over a year to produce. That ‘community’ includes farmers, teachers, students and professionals living in the vicinity of the artist’s studio located in a rural setting in Nsukka who cut, join and assemble under El Anatsui’s watchful eye. The energetic presence of so many hands implicated in the pieces is something he feels strongly.

“Any time I’m before any of (these pieces), I have a feeling of the presence of all these layers of people, right from the people who made the drink, the people who drank them, and my assistants and myself which gives them a spiritual dimension.”

El Anatsui. Gravity and Grace, 2010 Flaschenverschlüsse aus Aluminium und Kupferdraht. 482 x 1120 cm. Collection of the artist Nsukka, Nigeria
© El Anatsui. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

With each new hanging emerges a new work of art

Scalability is crucial “because working with forms which are not fixed, you want to give them scope to be able to do more things. If it’s small there’s very little scope to what you can do with it”. As the individual components are fixed together to become larger entities, the malleable metal structure contracts or expands, folds or lengthens to fit a particular space. During each installation, the hanging assumes new variations. A piece which has been presented as a landscape in one setting, may assume a portrait form in another. El is keen to emphasize how he tries not to intervene during the installation of his works. The deliberate lack of context enables a freedom for personal interpretation of each new hanging and is something which he learns from.

El Anatsui. Awakened, 2012. Gefundenes Aluminium und Kupferdraht 337,8 x 266,7 cm (einschliesslich Quasten) Privatsammlung, USA
© El Anatsui. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

“You don’t want to impose your own ideas upon the people, you want their ideas to be valid, they also represent a valid view, a valid statement so you allow it”.

With largescale works transported between museums and collections across the world, the lightness and flexibility makes them practical to move around, something which, he says, relates to the nomadic ideology.

Detail of the work Strips of Earth’s Skin, 2008. El Anatsui. Triumphant Scale, Kunstmuseum Bern, 2020.
Photo © Alexia Green 2020

El Anatsui equally draws connections between consumption, waste and the environment. The spectacularly immersive Earth Shedding its Skin installed in Venice last year makes reference to Ghana’s illegal mining industry and its destruction of the earth. One of his most well-known works in wood, Erosion, a totemic sculpture engraved with Adinkra symbols and Ghanaian aphorisms made in response to the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil is included in the current exhibition. For over a month, the artist made intricate hand carvings using chisels and gauges before destroying part of the structure with a chainsaw. As the ornate, painted carvings are reduced to wood chippings and sawdust, it stands as a powerful metaphor for both environmental erosion and the destruction of established cultures by powerful forces.

What emerges throughout the entire body of work is the fragmentary nature of the materials. Whether metal bottle caps, wooden plates clustered together into changeable arrangements or wooden reliefs composed of slats, each medium is open to new configurations of artistic display. At its core is the unique formal language which distinguishes his practice.

Exhibition View. El Anatsui. Triumphant Scale, Kunstmuseum Bern, 2020.
Photo © Alexia Green 2020

“I’ve always believed that Earth should present us with things that we don’t know. If the thing is so clear, then it loses something so I create marks that you can’t make meaning out of, like you’re in the world but you don’t know the world… It’s a phrase that’s informed most of my practice. I’m not here to reproduce the Adinkra or Uli signs which people understand but to create art, my own creations, otherwise I’m not adding anything to the world”.

El Anatsui’s poetic, aesthetic art is deeply moving. On the surface, it exudes legerity and luminosity, substance and pliancy while remaining free of categorisation. It is also unequivocally rooted to the contemporary tragedies of the human story.

Portrait de El Anatsui. Photo: Maximilian Geuter

El Anatsui. Triumphant Scale
Kunstmuseum Bern
Until 1st November 2020.

For further information go to www.kunstmuseumbern.ch

Interview excerpts courtesy of the artist.

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© http://www.arteez.ch 2020