El Anatsui – The Godfather of Recycled Art

Artwork in the GAWU series. Photo: WikiCommons
Artwork in the GAWU series. Photo: WikiCommons

El Anatsui is a very clever and gifted artist. No one else can do what he does and make it look that easy. Born in 1944 in Ghana the youngest of 32 children, El Anatsui is the godfather of recycled art.

While researching this artist I quickly realised that I have seen his work; the piece called Ink Splash 11, work in aluminium and copper. It’s only when you see the art up close that you can experience the technique and splendour of the piece and others.

Training within the University of science and technology at the college of art in Kumasi Ghana, Anatsui was fortunate to go to college, growing up in the 50s and 60s in Africa in political upheaval. Ghana gained independence from Britain in 1957; then went on to become a republic with Kwame Nkrumah as president. 

These factors are bound to have had an effect on Anatsui; he began teaching at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1975 and went on to be an affiliate of the Nsukka Group. The Nsukka group is known for reviving the practice of Uli and Uli is based on the traditional designs drawn by the Igbo people of South-East Nigeria.

Once you know these facts it’s not difficult to see the elements that pull together to make Anatsui a groundbreaking artist, ahead of the curve, both traditional and classical with a touch of the future thrown in for good measure.

El Anatsui. Photo: October Gallery

Sculpture

In 1990 Anatsui had his first exhibition at the Studio Museum, Harlem. He was also one of the three artists who exhibited in the show ‘Contemporary African Artist: Changing Tradition’. This exhibition was such a great success and on the back of this was extended for five years.

One of the pieces of art that have made Anatsui famous is made from everyday objects turned into a large scale masterpiece. The sculpture called Erosion is a column of burnt wood, splinters and small sticks of wood placed on top of each other in a delicate and beautiful curved tower, at nearly 10 foot tall this piece is likened to a totem pole, but with an African minimalist slant that makes this piece so unique.

Erosion exhibited in 1992 propelled Anatsui into the spotlight, but it wasn’t until 2008 when he won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale that he secured his title as the godfather of recycled art.

1999 was a pivotal year for Anatsui, and the year he found a bag of metal bottle seals and caps from African alcohol bottles and the journey began, making huge installations by crushing the bottle caps into circles and cutting them into strips and securing together with copper wire. The effect is sublime. It’s this shimmering quality that is more reminiscent of fabric than metal. The sort of expensive material used by Issey Miyake 80s haute couture garments than sculpture.

Many exhibitions followed including Ink Splash II – this artwork is silver strips with a splattering of gold and a huge splash of blue metal depicting exactly that, an ink splash.

Ink Splash II started the series of installation wall hangings, culminating in the outstanding Bleeding Takari II in 2007. ‘Takari’ is a fictional name but the work is not fictional, evocatively conveying blood spilling through the design of the wall hanging on to the floor

2010 saw a retrospective of his work at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, called When I last wrote to you about Africa. Here we see nine massive metal sculptures and some early work to include ceramic and wooden pieces. This retrospective allowed the visitor to view the artist’s ideas and development over four decades bringing with it a multilayered narrative displaying the artist’s view on social issues, cultural observations and historical identity.

Anatsui has been exhibiting extensively since 1990; invited to the prestigious Venice Biennale in 2006 and again in 2007, making Anatsui a prolific producer of evocative art. Awarded an honorary degree by Harvard University in 2016, let’s hope this hard-working artist does not give up his hammer and paintbrush anytime soon.

Recycled Material and Symbols of Slavery

Anatsui is very aware that in order to be creative we need to find inspiration in what is at hand. This philosophy is common among artists striving to make art against the odds. Therefore recycled materials are an obvious choice but it’s more than that. These found items, particularly the bottle caps and seals are a nod to a wider subject, and the broader topics including consumerism but, more importantly for Anatsui, slavery.

Man’s Cloth, 2005. Aluminium and copper wire. Photo: textileforumblog

Speaking to Art News in 2008 he said, “I saw the bottle caps as relating to the history of Africa in the sense that when the earliest group of Europeans came to trade they brought along rum originally from the West Indies, that then went to Europe and, finally, to Africa as three legs of the triangular trip. The drink caps that I use are not made in Europe; they are all made in Nigeria, but they symbolize bringing together the histories of these two continents”.

Naming the Art

Anatsui refers to himself as a sculptor as well as a painter, but his sculptures don’t have a fixed form and this breaks with the traditional medium, causing some consternation in the art world. However, painting the bottle tops is part of building up the texture and depth of each piece.

With similarities to Ghanaian Kente cloth and a nod to western mosaics and medieval chain mail, the work has been compared to the paintings of Gustav Klimt. Anatsui is a leader in the art world, going on to inspired others with his foresight and outstanding work ethic.

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