El Anatsui: Shimmering Mirage

El Anatsui: Shimmering Mirage

El Anatsui is one of Africa’s most influential artists of his generation, and has been named by Britain’s The Independent as one of the fifty greatest cultural figures shaping the continent’s art. Originally from Ghana, but living in Nigeria since 1975, he emerged from the vibrant post-independence art movements of 1960’s and ‘70’s West Africa. In 2012, the sale at auction of his masterpiece New World Map broke records for an African living artist, making £542,250.

El, (a name he coined for himself), creates art from found objects that he says “the environment has thrown up… you do art with whatever is around you.” In recent years, he has shaken up the international art world with his unique, spectacular wall sculptures, “a marriage between painting and sculpture,” as he calls them. These sinuous, sensuous floating metal ‘cloths’ subvert the concept of metal as hard and rigid, metamorphosing it into soft, pliable ‘curtains’ or assemblages, using the most impoverished of materials, transfiguring rather than recycling the mundane detritus of urbanism and creating a paradoxically opulent palette of countless tesserae. These consist of used, then crushed or flattened bottle tops, tin lids, cassava graters, tiny lattice patterned roofing strips and printing plates. Studio assistants then laboriously sew them together with copper wire. Naturally, created by many hands, these metal ‘cloths’ change in composition and choice of colour, reflecting the decisions of the varying people at work.

The process becomes more hi-tech when El Anatsui photographs the blocks of colour and moves them around on his computer, making adjustments. These artworks take many months to achieve. He had a travelling exhibition in America in 2007, called Gawu, a word derived from Ewe, his local language. He defines it as ga containing allusions to many things, including metal and wu, referring to ‘a fashioned cloak.’ The tesserae effect of his cascading, undulating metallic wall sculptures recalls the Ghanaian tradition of weaving Kente cloth. Born in 1944, El Anatsui watched his father and brothers weave textiles, but that was not a path he wished to follow. “My father was a master weaver. He presented one of the Kente he wove to me when I was going to university… I consider my current sculptural work to have several attributes of fabric, but I am not interested in textiles.

Even when we were introduced to them at art school, textiles did not attract me at all.” El Anatsui studied in Kumasi during the late 1960’s, where an English art school curriculum was taught. “There had to be something else,” he declared, and in 1975 joined Uche Okeke at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he has lived ever since, becoming Head of Sculpture there. Okeke, together with Bruce Onobrakpeya and other significant Nigerian artists were known as the “Zaria Rebels.” Their manifesto, Natural Synthesis, appealed to Anatsui, re-interpreting indigenous cultural traditions through modern techniques and materials, though he rejected the customary use of Western artists’ materials. Drawn by Sankofa, which in Akan translates roughly as ‘go back and get it’, he is concerned with the erosion of African traditions by external forces and promotes their continued transmission.

Anatsui’s early work includes ceramics, which he deliberately fractured, as well as wall reliefs and sculptures of tropical hardwoods, and often of found objects such as old house posts. Other pieces he scorched so that they look charred. While in the United States in 1980, he began using power tools, particularly the chainsaw, which he describes as having a “language of violence, of tearing, of clawing, of dividing,” a metaphor for the long history of violence to Africa, not only of the centuries of slave trading, but also to the continent’s culture and traditions, and to its history, not taught but misrepresented and ignored during the colonial period. In 1988, he came across a sack of bottle tops, the material that became so seminal in the creation of his beautiful, gauzy wall sculptures. But they too have sinister implications, bottles of alcohol being one of the slave traders’ seductive goods of exchange for human cargo.


Full article published in Omenka magazine Volume II Issue I.

Originally trained as a photographer, Juliet Highet lived in East & West Africa as well as India, subsequently also travelling to 52 countries. In Nigeria she began writing professionally and on her return to UK began editing books and magazines. Highet is widely published on travel, the arts, perfumery and much more. She is the author of Frankincense: Oman’s Gift to the World, and a specialist in contemporary Arab culture and its heritage.

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