El Anatsui: Art & Life (Prestel)

El Anatsui: Art and Life (Prestel 2012) by Susan Mullin Vogel

Susan Mullin Vogel has spent the better part of five years in dialogue with El Anatsui to create her documentary films Fold Crumple Crush and Anatsui at Work. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that the hallmark of this book is an exhaustive emphasis on multiple voices, including the artist’s, which reflect upon his work to date. Comprehensive photography accompanies this narrative, which is broadly structured into two categories: life and art. This division suggests a curious distinction within otherwise chronological content. Many – including the artist who is quoted as observing that art is about life – would see the two as inextricably intertwined.

Throughout this handsome book there is an edge to the tone of Vogel’s writing that clearly aims to set the record straight. In doing so it dwells on prior misreading of the artist’s work, which in fairness are more often oversimplifications of analysis rather than wholesale mistakes. For example, the press are taken to task for their “shallow” coverage and organisations such as the Gates Foundation told off for their misguided image of Africa. While many of the reductive interpretations of the artist’s work undeniably deserve deeper discussion, a sizable book such as this is the ideal place to begin rather than labour past oversights.

Both artist and author establish a clear departure from the “metal cloth” description originally favoured by the artist, a shift that may dismay textile enthusiasts who see this language in positive terms. Similarly, later work is at pains to situate itself as global, rather than African. I have to wonder why textile and art, African and global, cannot coexist?

It is unquestionable that recent years have seen El Anatsui’s artistic output increasingly well regarded internationally. (Ironically, considering the effort to promote non-textile readings of his work, it is El Anatsui’s work that graces the cover of the recently released African Textiles Today by Chris Spring for the British Museum Press.) El Anatsui is unusual in the fact that, even with increasing international recognition, he has not emigrated from the Nigerian town of Nsukka where he has lived for much of his career. His artistic career to date is wholly deserving of its recent international acclaim. Similarly, Vogel is right to ask more of our engagement with El Anatsui’s fascinating work. But multiplicity is another way of telling this story.

Selvedge Magazine (issue 50: 86)