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El Anatsui’s Triumphant Scale


Bottle Top Sculpture

For a lot of art purists, contemporary art is trash and rhetorical nonsense. However, in the hands of many contemporary artists, trash has become graceful art. The Nigerian-born Turner prize winner, Chris Ofili, gained tabloid notoriety due to his intricate, hedonistic paintings incorporating animal ordure.

The Ghana-born Nigerian, El Anatsui, is a master of turning trash to striking art. His installations show that in contemporary art, everything is possible. He uses trash, elegantly called found material — milk tins, bottle caps, driftwood, iron nails, and printing plates — as well as natural elements to compose his grandiose installations.

The emeritus professor recently launched a two-year touring exhibition, the largest ever solo presentation mounted by an African artist in Europe and the Middle East.


Entitled, El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale, the show first opened in Munich, Germany, and was recently unveiled in Doha, Qatar at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. It was officially opened by H.E. Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani.

The Director of Mathaf, Abdellah Karroum, expressed “pride that Mathaf is hosting this important exhibition, the first major show in the Middle East of El Anatsui’s, now regarded as Africa’s greatest living artist.”

Karroum described the exhibition as representing “the close relationship we have with the late Okwui Enwezor, over many years.”

Enwezor, one of the two Nigerian curators of this historic exhibition, until his death, was the Director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst Museum, one of the show’s organisers. The other curator is Chika Okeke-Agulu, artist, art historian and Professor of Art History in the Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, USA, and a former student of Professor Anatsui.

The monumental show embraces, encompasses and displays every medium used by El Anatsui in his five decades-old careers as art scholar and sculptor. It is the largest, most comprehensive and detailed presentation of his oeuvre so far. It serves as a testament too of the overwhelming power, significance, and beauty of Anatsui’s art.

As the exhibition title suggests, it focuses on the triumphant and monumental quality of Anatsui’s sculptures, with the signature liqueur bottle cap series he developed over the last two decades at the core of the presentation.

Triumphal Scale also showcases El Anatsui’s creation of totally new and unique sculptural forms with art-making materials in the use of his signature bottle-cap series. This involves flattening, cutting and twisting bottle-caps, and then stitching them with copper wires into one dazzling, brilliantly captivating and huge sculptural tapestry.

The exhibition reveals his tireless preoccupation with the question of how a contemporary sculptural concept can be developed from the rich environment that is threatened by consumerism, global warming, and climate change.

Along with these ambitious works, with their imposing physical presence and dazzling colours, the show includes wood sculptures and wall reliefs spanning the mid-1970s to the late 1990s; ceramic sculptures of the late 1970s, as well as drawings, sketches and prints, and the grand work – his largest ever – on the building’s monumental façade.

On display is one of his testaments to climate change in the towering 117 inches (297.2 cm) high free-standing sculpture, entitled, Erosion.

Also featured in the is the intriguing three dimensional 73 1/4 in. (186cm) standing sculpture, Back of Front, the early trays, as well as drawings, prints, and books.

For the first time too, in this show, the artist forged a union between his signature multi-panel, chain saw wood reliefs and his metal bottle-caps in the wall sculpture, Harvest Moon.

In their curatorial note, Enwezor and Okeke-Agulu noted, “Anatsui has relentlessly worked to change and re-interpret the formal possibilities of African sculpture.”

Down the years, he has always “sought to not only re-invent but to change his materials and compositional techniques, which in the end create for his audiences a scintillating and often quite magical effect.”

His artistic practice exemplifies, what they described as, “a critical search for alternative models of artmaking that in turn questions the foundation of modernist ideals of artistic autonomy and aesthetic purity.”

They continued, “Anatsui’s ideas were formed in the context of Nsukka’s creative environment marked by artistic experimentation and aesthetic research, informed by the belief that great art can be developed anywhere in the world, independent of the so-called art centers of the West.”

In an earlier interview, Anatsui said, “when I create work, it is in my view a metaphor reflecting an alternative response; to examine possibilities and extend the boundaries in art. My work can represent links in the evolving narrative of memory and identity. The link between Africa, Europe, and America is very much behind my work with bottle caps. I have experimented with quite a few materials. I also work with material that has witnessed and encountered a lot of touch and human use … and these kinds of material and work have more charge than material/work that I have done with machines. Art grows out of each particular situation, and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up.”

Anatsui and his contemporaries at Nsukka, including world-renowned artists, writers, poets, and dramaturges, were motivated by a sense of worldliness that was more imaginative than locational, with an abiding belief that their work could contribute to enlarging the scope of artmaking in a much-expanded, global contemporary art scene.

He told The Guardian, “when I came to Nsukka, I found the place welcoming and I didn’t think of going to another university. It was the time that I came that we had the likes of Uche Okeke, Obiora Udechukwu, Chike Aniakor, and so many artists around. Nsukka art school had a very prestigious formation. I needed a place that was very exciting.”

He added, “an artist survives very well in an environment where there is idea stimulation and I have a lot of stimulation in the environment from the things that are cultural and even the language. The Nsukka environment was exalting, people were experimenting, and sometimes, not experimenting but very active – one that urged you on to do something. It was a synergetic kind of, at that time.”

The show is a testament to Anatsui’s invention of a completely new and unique sculptural form and visual language with material for artmaking revealed to him by his context of production.

He employs fragmentation as a compositional technique to infuse even the most abstract of his works with iconic power. “For instance, the laborious manual work of flattening, cutting, twisting, and crushing bottlecaps and using copper wires to suture and stitch the elements into one dazzling epic piece serves as metaphor for the constitution of human society,” said the curators in the programme note to the Haus der Kunst opening.

In the show, he interrogates ideas that are variegated and informs his practice over the years, from circular and multi-panel wood reliefs to terracotta forms, and the later metal sculptures, he engages with complex flows of history, memory, time, and how these forces shape human society.

This speaks to his enduring meditation on the impact of colonisation and postcolonial global forces on African cultures and invests his work with a profound conceptual purpose, its invocation of resilience and fragility, and its visual resplendence.

According to Anatsui, “I see that in Nigeria, you haven’t lost much of your culture. The colonialists did not stay long here. In Ghana, they destroyed so many things. When I came, I saw that in this area, especially the Igbo community, a lot of the culture was still intact.”

Even a cursory look at his large body of work demonstrates his linkages between sculpture and painting as well as an assemblage. The work, Logoligi Logarithm, in this presentation, is a ‘gloriously diaphanous’ in-door structure, consisting of 65 individual, ultra-thin parts of aluminum and copper wire to form a labyrinth through which an individual can walk.

The current exhibition is organised by Germany’s Munich museum, Hans der Kunst, which featured it from March to July 2019, and literally drew thousands of queuing viewers.

In collaboration to are Qatar Museum – Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, featuring the exhibition from October 2019 to February 2020; Switzerland’s Museum of Fine Arts, Berne, hosting it from March to June 2020; and Spain’s Guggenheim Bilbao, from July to November 2020.

Born in Anyako, Ghana, in 1944, he earned a bachelor’s degree in sculpture and a post-graduate diploma in art education from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, in 1969.

He taught at the Specialist Training College (now University of Education) in Winneba, Ghana, until 1975. That same year he moved to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he taught sculpture and basic design. After his retirement in 2011, he became an emeritus professor in 2014.

Anatsui’s work is found in the collections of no less than 60 of the world’s major international museums in Europe, North America, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and Africa. Major global galleries, as well as individual continental and international art collectors, have also acquired his work.

Among some of the institutions in whose collections his works can be found are The British Museum, London; The Centre Pompidou, Paris; The de Young Museum, San Francisco; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi; The Osaka Foundation of Culture, Japan; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Tate, London; and The Leeum Samsung Museum, Korea.

The sculptor is a recipient of some of the art world’s most prestigious prizes and honours. These include Japan’s Praemium Imperiale (2017), which is regarded as art’s Nobel Prize, and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 56th International Art Exhibition of the Biennale di Venezia (2015).

Anatsui is an Honorary Royal Academician of Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts and holds honorary doctorates, which include that of Harvard University and the University of Cape Town, South Africa. The Emeritus Professor has also been elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also holds the Igbo traditional title of ‘Ikedire’, conferred on him by the traditional ruler of Ihe-Nsukka, Enugu State.


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