In the Maxxi Museum in Rome, basking in its gold-coloured aluminum and recycled copper wire, is Stressed World by renowned Ghanian artist El Anatsui. Part of African Metropolis: Imaginary City, presenting a detailed overview of African art and culture on the continent, the artwork was executed in 2011 and is indicative of the artist’s recent interest in ordinary materials, and is one of Anatsui’s rare works with political overtones. The hodgepodge of shiny rectangular cut pieces woven together to evoke both a map of the world and a natural landscape, glisten in the light. It’s hard to ascertain a “stressed” feeling from this uplifting piece of art. Delicate yet monumental, the artwork signifies an exploration for meaning in light of ecological and cultural destruction. And in that search there is hope — a sentiment that Anatsui so regularly emanates from his work.
Born in 1944 in Anyako in the Volta Region of Ghana, Anatsui was trained at the College of Art, University of Science and Technology, in Kumasi, central Ghana. In 1975 he began teaching at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and has lived in Nigeria ever since, travelling frequently to Ghana. It is rare to find an artist with such international recognition outside a major metropolitan centre. But Anatsui, or ‘El’ as he is often referred to, has chosen to and it hasn’t affected his art production in the least. As critic John McDonald wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald, “El Anatsui has conquered the planet while living and working in the Nigerian university town of Nsukka.” And he has. Under his belt are solo exhibitions at eminent institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum (2013), National Museum of African Art, and Smithsonian Instution in Wasthington DC (2008), and he has also participated in group shows at Hayward Gallery (2005), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2008-09), to name a few.
In April 2015 he was the recipient of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale. The prize recognized his recent successes internationally as well as his artistic influence amongst two generations of artists working in West Africa. In 2014, he was made an Honorary Royal Academician as well as elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. On 26 May 2016, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by Harvard University, and in 2017 he won the Praemium Imperiale, becoming the first Ghanaian to win the international art prize. The list goes on and on.
It has been 25 years since Anatsui’s work was first pioneered by Elisabeth Lalouschek, the artistic director of London’s October Gallery — one of the first spaces in the UK to support the careers of contemporary artists from Africa. Today, Anatsui’s stellar list of achievements serves to recognize his outstanding artistic ability. Yet when you meet the artist as I did in Dakar, Senegal, during the Dakar Biennale, he seems completely unaware of his fame. Attention is given solely to his art creation and the particular method in which he creates his installations. His iconic bottle-top installations are distinctive large-scale groupings created from thousands of pieces of aluminum sourced from alcohol recycling stations and sewn together with copper wire. The numerous parts worked on by a team of people at the artist’s studio, are transformed into metallic garment-like wall hangings. As they hang, the aluminum parts glistening as they do, the artist draws immediate ideological links between waste, consumption and the environment.
Here in Dakar, Anatsui has a large room devoted to his works at the Palais de Justice, which holds the main exhibition erected as a ‘Call to Action’’ African artists everywhere by curator Simon Njami. Within the dark, dimly lit space, the artist’s delicate aluminum squares glisten in the light. “From the Renaissance in Europe to abstract forms, symbols, and signs, there is this idea that there are so many approaches to art and I think the Renaissance had more to do with the eye and what the eye could see,” muses the artist. “For about three to four years I did nothing but play with symbols on trays and that was how I started my career. The good thing about it—the medium that I chose which was the tray — people could relate to it very well because they knew it—they had seen it in the market and now they saw it employed to create art.” His earliest collectors “were just ordinary people.” As he says, “They were just teachers and regular workers. They could relate to my art because they understood the everyday materials. I was working with things that were everyday and common to their environment.”
Anatsui’s works are monumental and luminous structures alluding to the universal shape of beauty. His is an art that reveals global abstraction, the history of Africa, a reverence for textiles, and life as a continuous process of change. “I was born to a family of creative people,” says the artist. “My mother passed away when I was very young. I heard many stories about her as someone who could create beautiful dresses. Without training, she made beautiful dresses for herself and her friends.
My father worked in textiles as a weaver.” Creativity was in his blood as was this emphasis on textiles that plays out so strongly in his work. Working in materials such as clay and wood, his art references traditional Ghanaian beliefs and other subjects. Many of his large-scale installation works resemble woven cloths like the famous Kente native to the Akan people of West Ghana. His installations, like the one at the MAXXI and at the Dakar Biennale, were not intended as textiles but as sculptures. “My display strategy, in the beginning, was very fluid; I would display my trays in cluster forms — five to six of them so you would have the opportunity to decide how you would format them. It wasn’t fixed,” he says.
These early exercises led to the evolution of his art and the works that he is doing now. “Art is regarded as life and life is not a static thing, it is something that is constantly changing,” he adds. “Therefore, if you have artworks they should come in a form that you can play around with and manipulate and change as the location demands.” These are the “non-fixed forms” like life — they are fluid and offer surprise, versatility, and change.
“I go to the studio every day apart from when I am teaching,” says Anatsui. “I find that it is very useful because it keeps you on the edge of what you are doing.” He now works with a large team of around 40 people to complete his installations. Working with his famous bottle caps can be an incredibly labor-intensive process and it sometimes takes from several months up to a year to put each work together. “I’ve jettisoned the idea of the purist sculptor and the artist who makes everything with his hands,” he laughs. “Today, I think the artist is more the person who comes up with the ideas.”
Details such as color remain important parts of his oeuvre. “Colour is a strong element in art; with color, you can say a lot of things,” he muses. “My training was in sculpture and my beginnings were those of a purist. I believe that if you make sculptures you need to do it in the color of the medium — that should be all that you are concerned with.” But then there were the bottle-caps that had many different colors. “However, with the two initial works that I made with the bottle-caps, I didn’t care at all about the color, I was only interested in the form — the form that is fluid and flat.” Later, Anatsui’s focus shifted to color so that he was combining his interest in both form and color, creating artwork that merged the two elements in a fluid way. “I combined the interests of the painter and the sculptor in the works that I do.”
And what about this renewed interest in African art? He smiles, “All cultures produce art but if the world did not know about it before then it is their problem. These kinds of questions make me think that something is wrong with the world. Things are correcting themselves now.” For Anatsui, as with many artists, it’s about showcasing one’s art to as wide an audience as possible. “I don’t think that art is made for collecting. When I create I am not creating for collectors; I am creating because I want to see what happens when you put this and that together and what effect that gives. People collect because they want to own things, but art is something that belongs to everyone. When you go to a museum, for instance, the museum collects for the public and that is why most artists want their artwork in museums because there you are seen by more people.”
Art, for Anatsui, must be for the world. “The more exposure is given to art the better. It is the museum that democratizes the artwork.” It is through exposure to ideas, such as the artist’s non-fixed forms, which tell of the fluidity of life and art, that greater understanding and humanity is gained. “It’s a circle,” he explains of his recent work. “You allow the mind to complete the rest of the form.”