Artists are known to be eccentric, sometimes esoteric, and even misunderstood. They seem to flutter in a creative netherworld, seeking ideas that are all their own; portraying their creative vim in the clothes that they wear, and in the way they live. Anatsui is somewhat different. Quite sane to look at, his eccentricity is revealed in the choice of media he employs in creating his art. Did he always intend to do so? No, but a hunger in him had to be satisfied and this led him on a quest not just for media that would depict the signs and symbols of Africa, but would also be easily found in his environment. Thus began his journey with bottle tops.
“When I left art school one of the decisions that I unconsciously made was that I should be able to find media in my own environment to work with and not continue to work with the traditional media,” he says. For him, the bottle caps he employs are also symbolic of the triangular trade route that moved Africans to America to become slaves, sugar they harvested in American plantations to Europe to be made into rum, and rum to Africa to be consumed.
But I forget myself. Who is the celebrated El Anatsui, Master of the Bottle tops? Born in Anyako, Ghana in 1944, Anatsui is a Ghanaian sculptor active for much of his career in Enugu, Nigeria. He trained at the College of Art, University of Science and Technology, in Kumasi, in Central Ghana. He later became a lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1975, and climbed through the ranks to become a Professor of Sculpture and Departmental Head at the University. His art education at the Ghanaian University was focused on Western art, and left him vastly unsatisfied and hungering for more of Mother Africa.
The versatile Anatsui is never without media to work on because he never restricts himself to any one particular medium of expression. As he moved around the world for things like a residency abroad or to take a teaching position at the University of Nigeria, his materials changed. He painted, when paint and canvas was available, he worked with wood, employing a chainsaw when he was at a residency in Massachusetts. In Ghana, at the beginning of his career, he picked up the wooden trays African women used to display their goods in the market and burned designs into them with a fire iron used to brand cattle. In 1996, while at a residency in the Netherlands, he collected pieces of driftwood and fixed them to one another to make long, lean bodies topped with blockish heads. Master Sculptor!!!
However, his most celebrated pieces are those made from bottle tops, bottle caps, the discarded tops of evaporated milk tins, rusty metal graters and old printing plates, all gathered in and around Nsukka, Nigeria, where Anatsui has lived and worked for the last 28 years. Several of his metal “cloths” are from thousands of bottle tops strung together with copper wire to form enormous shimmering sheets which undulate and fold into different shapes. Anatsui also notes that most of the scrounged up bottle tops once housed alcoholic drinks. “It is a sign,” he says, “of the issue alcohol has become in Africa.”
On his foray into metal art, he narrates. “…I found a big bag of liquor bottle tops apparently thrown away. … I kept the bottle caps in the studio for several months until the idea eventually came to me [to flatten and stitch the caps together]. 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.”
El Anatsui has exhibited his work around the world, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2008–09); National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C. (2008); Venice Biennale (2007); Hayward Gallery (2005); Liverpool Biennial (2002); the National Museum of African Art (2001); the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (2001); the 8th Osaka Sculpture Triennale (1995); the 5th Gwangju Biennale(2004); and the Venice Biennale (1990 and 2007). A retrospective of his work, subtitled ‘When I Last Wrote to You About Africa’ opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, in October 2010. It will be touring North America for the next 3 years.
He has gone on to receive widespread international acclaim for his sculptural experiments with media, form and tradition and his pieces sell for thousands of dollars. His sculptures have been collected by major international museums, from the British Museum to the Centre Pompidou, the de Young Museum, San Francisco, the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, the Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, and many other prestigious institutions.
A book by Susan Vogel entitled El Anatsui: Art and Life was launched in November 2012. It charts the life and career of the artist.
In a museum plaque describing “Rain has no father?” one of his sculptures, Anatsui quoted, “Rather than recounting history, my art is telling about what history has provoked.”
What was that phrase Bright Simons used? Visible impact with next-to invisible resources. One man’s junk is another man’s diamond mine. Right in the heart of Nsukka Nigeria, Anatsui is creating and exporting “counter”!!! What did you say was holding you back?