Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

El Anatsui: Forging Fabrics of Tin


El Anatsui

Contemporary African art often suffers from assumption that it must – through some sort of guilt by association – contribute to a revival of a pre-colonial voice. Sadly work of this nature is often annexed from more mainstream contemporary art discourse under the labels “ethnic” or even “outsider art” and, as a result, forfeits the opportunity to contribute to an international arts dialogue. But contemporary African artists who overtly engage with the international debates of Fine Art are often criticised for turning their backs on their origins or, worse yet, perpetuating a neo-colonial admiration of Western values.

El Anatsui, a national of Ghana and resident in Nigeria for the past thirty years has created a body of work that balances both camps of thought and offers a meaningful contribution to discourses relevant to the African continent as well as international contemporary Fine Art. Anatsui is Professor of Sculpture at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, an institution he has taught at since the mid-1970s, and widely recognized as one of the foremost sculptors to emerge from the African continent in recent years. In spite of travel required of his increasingly demanding schedule of overseas exhibitions, artist residencies and public speaking engagements, he continues to consider Nigeria his home and base. The decision is no small gesture for a continent plagued by a massive brain drain in both the arts and sciences.

Recent works coined the “cloth series” resemble giant metal quilts but are in fact made from the metal caps of locally produced liquor. Each company recycles the glass bottles but the metal tops are discarded – neither recycled by the industry nor eroded by the climate. These discarded markers of alcohol consumption are painstakingly flattened and “sewn” into large-scale wall hangings. But these sculptures offer the viewer far more than a simple commentary on social mores. In fact recycling is far from the only, or even foremost, message of work produced in a region where reuse is the norm rather than exception. As Anatsui explains, “Art grows out of each particular situation and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up.”

The West African tradition of kente cloth, which is woven on narrow strip looms, is known for its distinctive bands of brilliant colour combinations. The whole cloth is comprised of long pieced strips that bare an uncanny similarity to the metal variegations of Anatsui’s work. He explains, “colour is inherent in everything and it’s possible to get colour from around you . . . you’re better off picking something which relates to your circumstances and your environment than going to buy a ready-made colour.” Time and again Anatsui seems to reiterate that a return to one’s origins, to the obvious, to the everyday and accessible can in fact take one further than flights of fancy.

There is a deceptive textile reference at play in these works.  While they buckle and fold in a way reminiscent of cloth the reality of the material – sharp tin tops and sutures of spiky wire – do not provide the tactile nature of the textile. Overwhelming in scale and intricate in composition the works withstand attention at very close distance and from far across the room. At Anatsui’s solo exhibition in the October Gallery, London, in early 2005 large pieces tumbled off the walls of the modest space and were even squeezed behind the chairs and tables of the cafeteria. Ironically it was in this intimate setting rather than the more spacious venues such as the British Museum’s Sainsbury Galleries and the Hayward for “Africa Remix” that sculptures felt most appropriately contextualized.

It is tempting to imagine the dynamics of a quilting bee when envisioning Anatsui’s studio. Expectations are overturned when the artist explains that a team of volunteers and full-time studio staff assemble sections individually which he then connects, and if needs be takes apart, to compose the whole. He maintains that each individual hand is evident in the manner the wire is folded, twisted and sewn and feels that these inflections contribute to the whole. Dr. Sylvester Okwunodo Ogbechie of the University of Santa Barbara California notes that Anatsui’s appropriation of textile acts as a “structural grid” for the artist’s creative endeavours. This observation speaks as much to the values of modern art as it does the grid of warp and weft, a balance that the works deftly strike. But Anatsui broadens interpretations even further by relating the construction of the work to digital design. He explains, “There are a lot of decisions to make – its like working with digital media – you have a section which you don’t find OK, you can easily lasso it and pick from another place to replace it. There is this scope to shift things around, to re-align relationships.”

This series of works certainly posses the scope and strength, if not to realign troubled relations between postcolonial Africa and the former colonial nations, then at the very least to recalibrate notions of contemporary African art.

Surface Design Journal (summer 2005: 36-39)