Africain Art, art and emotion, art practice, art process, art project, art routine, art supplies, art theme, collage painting, creativity, El Anatsui, inspiration, mixed media, process art, spirit in painting
“Art is a reflection on life. Life isn’t something we can cut and fix. It’s always in a state of flux.” — El Anatsui
The representation and inspiration of significant events of history has been a long and honored position in art and the image-making process. Egyptians etched their royal exploits on stone walls for eternity. A battle triumph of Alexander the Great is constantly being fought with the Persians among tiny tesserae of colored glass. Napoleon, in the huge narrative painting by David, is forever crowning himself emperor for life. But how might an artist portray a history that combines a composition of story-telling, fables and primal myths, when language functions as symbols and where traditional cultures are deeply covered by fractured strata of colonialism and post-colonism?
You have most likely seen the beautiful and glistening tapestries / wall-hangings / blankets of sculptor/multi-media artist El Anatsui. This African artist treats the concepts of transience of physical materials with the eternity of a dream, elegant transcendent translations of distruction, construction and renewal. He uses the ordinary, very humble material of daily existence fluidly presented on a monumental scale.
Born in 1944 in Ghana, before its independence, El Anatsui is the youngest of 32 children. Growing up in a household where his brothers wrote poetic lyrics for traditional rhythms and his father practiced weaving in his spare time, El Anatsui’s interest in art manifested at an early age. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sculpture in 1968 and a postgraduate diploma in art education.
El Anatsui has been an inspirational professor of sculpture from 1975 until 2010 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His interest is in transmitting the process of seeing and developing vision to his students to increase their personal perceptions of the surrounding environment and the world beyond the scope of current experience.
He advocates to his students the following primary strategies for awareness of process and growth of artistic vision in relationship to the opportunity of chance.
- Pull from your personal history for inspiration
- Look for materials to your immediate environment and give them the opportunity to be more than just humble fragments
- Travel when you can and bring all your travel experiences to bear on your work
- Allow for the possibility of something unexpected, new and wonderful to happen
Anatsui’s edict for himself and his students is to derive inspiration and materials from their respective environments. He proves that art material need not be expensive. He urges sensitive mindfulness in order to utilize “whatever the environment throws up” — not simply organic materials and natural resources but also the discarded, over-looked detritus of society such as bottle caps and tin milk cans.
In El Anatsui’s hands, simple materials do not result in simple works of art. His work embodies the idea that when only humble materials are available, their presentation in combined massive quantities multiples a sensation of monumentality.
His famous “bottle-cap” series came from a serendipitous chance find of a bag of garbage by the side of the road. He looked inside and found a collection of used aluminum liquor caps, destined for recycling and re-semelting. He took it back to his studio. (And how many times have we artists dragged strange items back to our lair with the thought “I can do something with this — sometime — but I am not sure just what.”) Eventually, he started to flatten the soft metals and then to link them, both physically with one another in intricate patterns of colors and textures but also with the history of slavery and oppression where the trade and distribution of alcohol played a pivotal role. These chance explorations became the glowing metal tapestries of bottle caps, draped on walls.
He explains: “All lids are from used bottles. Each represents a bottle of liquor consumed. As individual pieces, they are not linked. But when linked together they become powerful”
Though El Anatsui might use sources of traditional natural materials, such as clay. he employs twists on the customary approaches. For example, the series titled “Broken Pots.”
“At the time I made the Broken Pots series, I was thinking about the idea of breaking not as an end but as a beginning. ….In retrospect, I regard my process as an exhortation; that things have to break in order to start reshaping.”
El Anatsui will often use house paint or even poster or tempera in his paintings, applied with house-painting rollers.
There is no single trajectory in the scope of his approach to art-making. He utilizes found objects and materials, assemblage, ceramics, wood sculpture (natural form or carved and/or burned,) painting, drawing and printmaking — or any combination of all of these genres.
He states: “Media which come with history, meaning, with something mean something to me. Not just oil paint from a tube. I can’t relate to that well. I would rather go for something people have used. Then there is a link between me and the other people who have touched that piece.”
El Anatsui also has a nomadic aesthetic. When he travels, he has no need to bring art supplies with him. An example of his response to a different, foreign environment is the above grouping of wooden sculptures, executed during an artist’s residency in Denmark. He spied the flotsam of old, scared wood on a harbor sand spit that evoked for him the wayward journeys of forced migrations of colonial slave trade. This grouping, of what we might interpret as human forms, gathers power from a multiplicity of simplicity and emotions.
“Rather than recounting history, my art is telling about what history has provoked.”
El Anatsui weaves story-telling and myths, language and symbols. Lanuage is an important element in his work. Traditional writing uses ideograms, which is a system of linguistic symbols.
His titles also relate to language and oral tradition communication, mythology, literature and/or events in African history. He avails himself of traditional names for designs and composition that cast a reflection on specific historic incidents, stories or proverbs. He also examines the concept of failed dialog that signifies a times in which the text of history remains indecipherable.
I adore his titles. “In the World But Don’t Know the World,” “On Their Fateful Journey Nowhere,” “Leopard’s Paw-prints and other Stories,” “Neospeak Windows,” “Day and Night Opening to Each Other,” “Wonder Masquerade,” “Well-informed Ancestors,” “God’s Omnipotence,” “Omen,” “Chambers of Memory” and there are so many more beautiful examples.
But El Anatsui is notorious for his dislike of titling his work. He describes part of this process: ““I write short poems for titles sometimes. Sometimes they flow forth and sometimes they don’t come at all.” But he confesses:“I don’t know if a title is meaning.”
Another usage of chance in his art comes in its installation. Most artists will have detailed diagrams about special requirements of installation. El Anastsui does not give such instructions to patron or curator, relying on bringing individual creative sensibilities to the presentation. He acknowledges and honors the flux, fluidity and flexibility of his process.
As an artist, El Anatsui expands his work to communicate in the world. He affirms: “I’ve been an artist searching my environment for material to work with, and I want it to be material that relates to the people, not something that is different from them.”
I was fortunate to view the El Anatsui retrospective “When I Last Wrote to You about Africa” at the Denver Art Museum in the Fall of 2012. The memories are still stunning and stirring.
If you interested in learning more and seeing an installation of his work—please go here, where there are several interesting videos — including a wonderful interview with the artist.