In collaboration with the Munich House of Arts, the Kunstmuseum Bern is unveiling until September this year part of the rich and monumental work of the continent’s best-known Ghanaian visual artist, El Anatsui.
An atypical journey
El Anatsui is originally from southeastern Ghana, more precisely from the town of Anyako, in the Volta department. The latter shares its fertile and plural Ewée culture with border Togo. As the youngest of 32 children, he inherited the artistic fiber of his father, then weaver of kita loincloth, the royal garment of the Akan people. Indeed, one can detect a certain familiarity and obvious similarities between the wire cloths that make the success of the artist today, and this fabric composed of strips of silk and cotton woven in such a way as to create vividly colored patterns.
Orphaned by father and mother, El Anatsui was educated by his maternal uncle and was attracted to the plastic arts at a very early age. The artist considers the school initiation to writing as his first artistic experience. It is therefore quite logical that at the end of his school career, he chose to study fine arts at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. He came out with a postgraduate degree that opened the doors to teaching sculpture, first in Accra and then at the University of the city of Nsukka, in southeastern Nigeria. The then young professor moved there in 1975, for work… He ended up settling there permanently.
His years in contact with art education in Africa left him hungry. What is taught, in his eyes, are only pale replicas of Western curricula. In his quest for knowledge and authenticity, he chose to go off the beaten track to meet “real” African artists. And it pays off! His escapade in the world of local artisans allows him to develop creative techniques based on the use of materials from his immediate environment.
According to his own words, the goal of his art is to regenerate these materials and give them new life. A creative process that he does not hesitate to recommend to his students in order to free himself from any financial pressure related to the search for sophisticated and expensive materials.
A creation in constant evolution
Similar to the harmonic compositions of a meticulous conductor, El Anatsui’s famous hangings require the collective work of many assistants, whose role is to flatten hundreds of liquor bottle caps, pierce them and connect them together with twisted brass wires. These copper canvases, which are the centerpieces of the Triumphant Scale exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bern, are both a symbol of the artist’s legacy and an allegory of human social construction.
El Anatsui sees his work as a metaphor for life, giving free rein to variations and changes over time. His first sculptural works after his academic studies were wooden paintings, modelled on the rudimentary display models of Ghanaian shopkeepers.
These circular-shaped panels were inspired by the movement of Ghanaian artists back to their roots after the country’s independence. This movement, called Sankofa, (“go back to get it”) caused, in El Anatsui, a deep artistic reorientation towards its endogenous values. Thus, this first series of works allowed him to remarkably associate marking with heated iron and traditional sculpture.
The Ghanaian artist will then try his hand at carving solid wood with a chainsaw. For him, this working tool embodies the deep and aggressive alteration of the indigenous cultures of Black Africa by the settlers. Indeed, El Anatsui believes that the borders established by the colonial powers between African countries do not take into account the cultural realities of the peoples. He likens them to the straight lines easily drawn in the woods by the chainsaw.
By working with the chainsaw for several years, the artist acquires a certain dexterity in the handling of the tool. In the 1990’s, he created a majestic freestanding sculpture called Erosion. According to the author, this creation represents the degradation of African culture by Westerners, and the economic repercussions that go with it.
In addition to chainsaw carving, El Anatsui has also worked on relief paintings made from tropical wood, using the ancestral carving methods of the African peoples of Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. By using other instruments such as hole saws, band saws and milling machines, the artist has managed to imprint in his creations a part of the continent’s cultural identity.
El Anatsui: a very diversified work
After the wood used as sculpture material, El Anatsui, a true fan of unusual objects, does not hesitate to collect, in the dusty soil of his adopted land, thousands of alcohol bottle caps to make highly prized metal hangings. This transition from wood to metal marks a decisive turning point in the artist’s work.
Initially, the sculptor tried several techniques for using recycled materials, including broken clay pots. Indeed, in some African cultures, broken clay vases have more functions than the original unaltered vase. For El Anatsui, these scraps have great artistic value.
The artist then realized that he could use the screw caps as lids for alcoholic beverages. It is enough to flatten them and then assemble them with copper wire to considerably increase the size of a sculpture. These capsules offer him enormous possibilities for arranging shapes, colors and surfaces, giving his canvases almost unlimited power of expression.
El Anatsui also considers that the capsules used for his giant metal canvases carry the entire history and immaterial connections of the people who have touched them. It is therefore not just a matter of ecological recycling. The Ghanaian artist explores the multiple possibilities offered by the recovered materials and all their energies. Once reworked these materials embody, according to him, the phases of life: birth, death, rebirth.
A popular artist
Affectionately called El by his entourage, Anatsui, is today considered a sage. He is also one of the most highly regarded African artists on the planet in recent years; his works are part of the most prestigious collections worldwide. They are now valued and commercialized at over a million dollars.
At his first steps in the artistic world of sculpture, El Anatsui had only one assistant. Today there are several dozen of them who participated in the birth of his works. He plans to settle soon in his home country, Ghana, as well as in the United States.