El Anatsui non-lunch

Published February 4, 2016
Lunch with El Anatsui at the Old Clare Hotel

For an artist acclaimed as a ground-breaking pioneer for an entire continent, El Anatsui is amazingly laid-back. It may be because international fame and fortune didn’t arrive until 2004, when he was already 60 years old. It may be because he hails from a part of the world in which time is not always snapping at one’s heels.
El Anatsui was born in a small town in Ghana in 1944. In 1975 he took up a teaching post at the university town of Nsukka in Nigeria, and has remained there ever since. He is the very model of the self-made man, excelling as a student, then as an inspirational professor. Even the name “El” is his own invention. He wanted something short, simple and neutral, although he is amused to find how many people think he must be an Arab, or at least a muslim. In fact he’s not the least bit religious, perhaps as a legacy of being raised in the household of an uncle who was a Presbyterian Minister.
Anatsui is the youngest of 32 children, sired by a father named John, to “five or six” wives. No wonder he felt obliged to reinvent himself. By moving to Nigeria he also gained a measure of freedom from the family ties that are such a dominant feature of life in Africa.
The artist is in Australia for an exhibition at Carriageworks, as part of the Sydney Festival. It opened only two days ago, and he has already been shuffled off to Melbourne for a visit of less than 24 hours. I’m meeting him at 4.30 in the afternoon, between his return from Melbourne and his evening flight back to Nigeria. This is not exactly conducive to the lunch format.
Carriageworks has put him up at the Old Clare Hotel, on Broadway, which used to be part of the Carlton United Brewery complex. We are meeting in the C.U.B. Suite, formerly the Breweries’ boardroom. It is an exotic enclave within the hotel, with high ceilings, wood panelling, parquet floors, a carved fire-place, and even the original urinal used by many a captain of industry.
The artist is being chaperoned by indefatigable young curator Beatrice Gralton, who once worked as my intern at the National Gallery of Australia. Beatrice has arranged for “snacks and juices” to accompany the interview. These duly arrive, but Anatsui takes one look and waves them away. “Oh no, I’m not really hungry,” he says.
I’m not really hungry either. Who’s hungry at 4.30 in the afternoon?
I’m beginning to think these “lunch” interviews are cursed. My last effort was a high tea with filmmaker, Alex Gibney, who is obviously an android, as he has directed more than 20 feature-length documentaries over the past decade and has no need for food or drink.
Anatsui has a different peculiarity. He is a raw vegan who eats only fresh vegetables prepared at a temperature not exceeding 40 degrees C. It’s the kind of diet that positively radiates virtue. It’s food that sends my wife (and my editor) into raptures, but leaves me colder than a piece of marinated tomato. I’m not the type that hangs out for a meat lovers pizza, but even if I was hungry I couldn’t see myself doing anything more than picking away at a leaf or two.
The beverage component consists of large jugs of watermelon and beetroot juice. These are not substances I’d ever considered absorbing in liquid form.
“How did you arrive at this diet, El? Is it part of some spiritual discipline?”
“No, it’s just that I had a weight problem, and a couple of friends told me about this diet four years ago. As soon as I tried it the weight fell away, and I’ve been the same ever since.”
“You feel healthy? It gives you more energy?”
“Yes. The only things you lack are vitamins B12 and D3.”
Anatsui certainly looks healthy. A trim 71 year old, with spectacles and a crop of short, white hair, he is wearing a jazzy short-sleeved shirt covered in signal flags, turn-up jeans and black trainers. He has the kind of forbearing, infinitely patient manner that suggests he is a veteran of many, many stupid interviews.
When I ask him about being awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at last year’s Venice Biennale, he says “it’s a big, heavy medallion. You couldn’t wear it anywhere as it would be viewed as a potential weapon.”
He laughs when I tell him that places such as Ghana and Nigeria are a complete mystery to most Australians. “This is my first time in Australia,” he says. “We always imagine Australia as a very distant place with very distant people.”
When I say the only things we ever hear about Nigeria are pipeline explosions and Boko Haram kidnappings, he assures me that’s just the stuff that makes the headlines.
It’s a very interesting country with a large, diverse population of almost 80 million people. It’s also the biggest economy in Africa.”
“Even the politics are OK now,” he continues. “They had an election last year, and for the first time the opposition party won. As long as I’ve been there the ruling party always won, but this time it changed! Everybody was surprised. It was against the norm. People were really celebrating.”
The food continues to stare at us, sending out waves of silent virtuous indignation. Beatrice asks if I would like a coffee. Yes! Anything to give the impression this is not simply an interview. Anatsui joins in with a peppermint tea.
Anatsui’s artistic career made slow but steady progress until 1998, when he found a bag of old bottle tops in the bush, and had a Eureka moment. Or rather, thought about it for two or three years until that moment arrived. The first hanging works, Woman’s Cloth and Man’s Cloth (both 2001), were exhibited at the October Gallery in London in 2002. They were purchased by the British Museum, which got in ahead of museums from Washington D.C. and Tokyo.
Anatsui’s art was launched on the world and he has never looked back. Nowadays if you wished to acquire a large-scale piece from his dealers in London or New York, you’d be spending more than US$ 2 million.
There is an irony in museums and billionaire collectors queuing to buy works made from the the tops of African bottles of booze. Anatsui points out that alcohol was a means of payment during the days of the slave trade. It also recalls the colonial cycle whereby African countries would supply raw materials to Europeans who turned them into cheap goods and sold them back to the Africans. Now the so-called First World is buying back trash transformed into treasure.
His success has allowed Anatsui to employ a large number of assistants, who spend all day flattening used bottle tops while he devises the compositions. He is building a big new studio in Nsukka, and another one in Ghana.
“Right now I have about 20 or 40 people working for me on a casual basis. They’re not art students, but mainly young chaps straight out of high school waiting to get into university. In Nigeria it’s very competitive, and it might take some of them 2 to 5 years. Afterwards they come to work during the holidays and earn enough to pay their fees.’
By all accounts Anatsui runs a tight operation. He wants the workers to focus on their tasks, not make idle chatter. “It requires some skill and concentration,” he says. “You have to learn where to put the holes, how to make strong joints. If your attention is divided you won’t get it right, and that will create a weak link.”
His strictness in the studio is abandoned in the gallery. He is happy for hangers to install a work any way they think fit. There is no right way up. A piece may begin on the wall and end sprawling on the floor.
“I don’t see myself as the repository of all taste,” he explains. “Everybody has their own taste and you have to respect that. I often learn new things from the way works have been mounted.”
“The most unusual installation I ever had was in the Vatican Museum. The Vatican is supposed to be conservative, but they were highly creative. They displayed it on a false wall and were daring enough to let some portions of it go behind the board. It was on a diagonal, so you didn’t see the regular format of the rectangle. The curator told me they’d spent a long time trying to figure it out. ”
Like those hard-edged abstractionists of the 1970s, Anatsui has spent years thinking about how to escape the tyranny of the rectangle. He began with conventional formats, but has gradually allowed the work to grow organically in any direction, sometimes for sixteen metres or more.
“There are always horizontal and vertical elements, but I don’t want the edges to give any sense of orientation.
People initially associated the work too much with textiles, and I wanted to take them away from that.”
What he likes best of all – even more than a dish of cold sprouts and sunflower seeds – is to evade definitions. His wall hangings might be called sculpture, landscape, cloth, tapestry or mosaic. They are handcrafted objects with a strong conceptual dimension.
“I hate classifications,” he says. “I don’t even like the idea of being called a painter or a sculptor, or ‘a cross between painting and sculpture.’ I think the best thing an artist can do is to make things that defy categorisation. I’ve found that with a work of art, the more you don’t try to define it, the more you understand it.”
Having expounded this Zen-like idea, it’s time for Anatsui to go and prepare for his next flight. After we say our goodbyes I’m presented with the untouched raw vegan food. I know it will find an appreciative audience at home.
The food:
Prepared by The Old Clare Hotel restaurant Kensington Street Social
– Stuffed vine tomato, 20yr aged balsamic vinegar
– Raw pea salad, pickled heirloom carrot, lemon myrtle dressing.
– Cauliflower couscous, spring onion, mint
– BBQ tomato salad, crudo raw vegetables, basil olive oil
The drinks:
– Fresh watermelon juice
– Fresh beetroot juice
– Peppermint tea
– 1 X coffee (!)
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 30th January, 2016.