El Anatsui makes one feel there might actually be some substance in the talk of a globalised art world. The idea that artists from places other than Europe and America can be players on the contemporary scene has been around ever since Jean-Hubert Martin’s landmark exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre, held at the Centre Pompidou in 1989. That show was derided by curators and gallery directors who had no quarrel with the status quo, but it addressed an underlying anxiety that western art was growing tired and decadent.
The notion of greater inclusiveness surfaced again in the 2002 Documenta, put together by Nigerian-born curator, Okwui Ekwezor. This show included artists who orginated in many exotic locations, although they all seemed to live in New York or Paris or Berlin, just like the curator.
It has taken many years to find artists that can occupy a prominent place on the global circuit while choosing to reside outside the metropolitan centres. William Kentridge has made his reputation from Johannesburg, and El Anatsui has conquered the planet while living and working in the Nigerian university town of Nsukka.
El Anatsui: Five Decades at Carriageworks is the artist’s first exhibition in Australia, although he was included in the 2012 Sydney Biennale. This selection features items from as far back as the 1970s, revealing a career that was already well advanced by the time Anatsui began making the hanging works that have become a trademark. The show is the first installment of a new partnership with dealer-turned-philanthropist, Anna Schwartz, who has donated $500,000 to help Carriageworks host major overseas exhibitions.
Anatsui was born in a small town in Ghana in 1944, the youngest of 32 children whom his father had sired with “five or six wives”. He would be raised in the family of an uncle who was a Presbyterian minister, but he never felt the appeal of religion. Anatsui excelled as a student, but when he gained admission to university and decided to study fine arts, his uncle was aghast.
This wasn’t the act of a rebel, but a young man who was clear about what he wanted to do, and determined to succeed. In search of a name that was short, simple and neutral, Anatsui re-christened himself “El”. It was years before he realised some people mistook him for an Arab or a Muslim.
After getting his degree in Ghana, Anatsui was advised to apply for a teaching post at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He got the job and has remained there ever since, although his best memories relate to the early years on campus when he was part of an exceptionally talented group of artists and writers, including Chinua Achebe, West Africa’s leading modern novelist.
In the years from 1975-78, Anatsui produced a series of ceramic sculptures known as the Broken Pots. He combined local clay, ceramic shards and manganese from Ghana to create dark-flecked pots that were deliberately mangled. He was inspired by the idea that when one makes a sacrifice in a local shrine, a broken vessel is used.
The works have been interpreted as a comment on the broken-down state of the Ghanaian economy, but Anatsui saw them in more universal terms, implying a destruction that leads to renewal. The paradox was that each piece, no matter how shattered, was presented as a finished work of art. Could a work be apparently broken but conceptually complete? One thinks of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, which the artist declared finished only when it was cracked.
Anatsui continued to experiment and in 1980 began carving wooden sculptures with a chain saw. This may sound crude but he managed to attain a high level of finesse, drawing into a slab then carefully smoothing the grooves. He also made works by burning designs into wood, a process we call pokerwork.
When he discovered a collection of used aluminium printer’s plates, Anatsui’s imagination went off in a different direction. He fashioned the battered plates into a set of large-scale Waste Paper Bags (2003), on which newspaper stories were still readable. These pieces acted like monuments to the lives of refugees and poor people, forced to carry all their possessions from place to place. They are also a form of Pop Art, echoing Claes Oldenburg’s overscaled versions of everyday objects.
Examples of all these earlier works may be seen at Carriageworks. They reveal an artist that has tried to remain true to the materials and themes of his native land, while demonstrating a shrewd knowledge of western art history. Anatsui is inventive and open-minded, but also incredibly patient. He has persevered with each phase until its possibilities seemed exhausted, without ever closing the door. Years later he would return to pottery with new inspiration.
Anatsui’s breakthrough came in 1998 when he found a bag of tin-can lids in the bush. By joining them together he created a soft sculpture, like a metallic blanket that could be arranged into diverse shapes. The largest example is Drainpipes (2010), in which giant-sized tubes lean against the gallery wall at Carriageworks and sprawl across the floor.
An even more important discovery of 1998 was a bag of tops from alcohol bottles. Anatsui began to flatten the tops and link them with copper wire, creating sheets that made use of the colour and reflective qualties of the material. The genie was out of the bottle and soon Anatsui’s work would be appearing in many different countries. The first two hanging works, Woman’s Cloth and Man’s Cloth (both 2001), were purchased by the British Museum from a commercial gallery show in London. Museums from Tokyo and Washington D.C. were waiting in the wings.
Over the past decade these hangings have grown larger and more complex, some stretching for more than 16 metres. There are vast pieces at Carriageworks, including Garden Wall, which cascades like a coloured waterfall. To create such works, and meet the growing demands of museums and collectors, Anatsui has developed a formidable workshop in Nsukka, with as many as 40 employees flattening bottle tops, drilling holes, and stitching panels together with copper wire. He takes care of the compositions and leaves the manufacturing to others.
In the decade-and-a-half in which he has been making these pieces they have undergone considerable changes.
Adinkra Sasa (2003) is a relatively early work that refers to a traditional form of cloth from Ghana. It is an elegant, formal composition, mainly black with parallel bands of gold. The configuration one sees in the gallery may change with each hanging, as Anatsui encourages installers to follow their own preferences. As far as he’s concerned there is no top or bottom, no right or wrong way to exhibit a piece.
Such freedom is in line with Anatsui’s own developing view of the work. In the beginning he was happy to make references to textiles, and allow a piece to be interpreted as a kind of cloth. Now he accepts that these works elude easy categorisation, having elements of sculpture, collage, landscape, textiles, tapestry and mosaic. They are intensively hand-crafted, but also conceptual. There are echoes of many different art movements, from the junk assemblages of artists such as Schwitters and Rauschenberg, to the delicate washes of colour found in the abstract painting of the 1970s.
One might even discern a political message in the idea of works made from the tops from African alcohol bottles becoming highly sought-after, multi-million dollar acquisitions for western museums. It’s a stunning reversal of the colonial legacy, whereby African nations provided markets for the cheap manufactured goods of Europe. The alcohol once traded for slaves is now providing raw material for fine art – the ultimate in luxury goods.
Such success might go to anyone’s head, but Anatsui is remarkably unaffected. His rewards have come late in life, and he continues to live in much the same way that he has for the past forty years. His chief motivation is not fame and fortune, but the feeling that he is continually making artistic progress. Anatsui is a modest man, but he would be less than human if he didn’t feel the excitement of this great, late work coming out of Africa, and taking the world by storm.
El Anatsui: Five Decades, until 6 March.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 6th February, 2016