El Anatsui interview: Out of West Africa (2006)
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This interview was previously published in Sculpture magazine, 25(6), July/August 2006, pp. 34-9; and also in G. Harper & T. Moyer’s Conversations on Sculpture (2007), pp. 312-17. (International Sculpture Center Press: Hamilton, NJ, USA; distributed by University of Washington Press).
El Anatsui art: Earth cloth, (2003). Aluminum bottle tops and copper wire, 487.7 x 457.2 cm.
A “cloth” made by sewing thousands of recycled, crushed, and flattened liquor bottle tops. A 10-foot-tall installation of redundant newspaper printing plates used for obituary pages and re-used as sculptural material to comment on temporary—and disposable—human lives. And rough, chain-sawed wood forming a line, an abstracted Visa queue, depicting hopes, dreams, desperation, and global inequality. These are just three works spanning five decades of artistic production by El Anatsui, who is widely regarded as one of the foremost African artists of his generation. His work refers to the history of the African continent, drawing on traditional African idioms as well as Western art practices.
Born and raised in Ghana, West Africa, El Anatsui studied sculpture at the College of Art, University of Science and Technology, in Kumasi, central Ghana. Since 1996, he has been a professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in the southeastern part of the country. He originally joined the university’s Fine and Applied Arts Department as a lecturer back in 1975.
Over the years, El Anatsui has exhibited extensively around the globe. His work has been shown at the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art (2002); the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC (2001); the Centro de Cultura Contemporania Barcelona (2001); the 8th Osaka Sculpture Triennale (1995); and the Venice Biennale (1990). Most recently he participated in “Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent,” which featured more than 70 artists from Algeria to Zimbabwe, as well as African artists living in Europe and North America. This exhibition was on view at the Hayward Gallery during El Anatsui’s concurrent solo exhibition at the October Gallery, also in London.
El Anatsui art: Visa queue, (1992). Tropical hardwoods, 20 cm. high, length and width variable.
R.J. Preece: When I was in Barcelona reviewing the “Africas” exhibition (2001), I was particularly captured by your piece Visa queue. For me, it’s one of those artworks that stays in your life—it provided an emotive, artistic representation of West African emigration to Europe, as resonant as the documentaries we see of people walking across the Sahara and risking their lives to cross the Strait from Morocco to Spain and into the EU. You created a lyrical line of massed figures, a nondescript mass. Why did you choose such a small scale for this work? Why did you want the viewer to be so uncomfortably monumental in comparison?
El Anatsui: Scale here takes on an inflective dimension—a dimension of significance. A friend related to me what his father-in-law told him when he went to inform him that he was migrating to a “greener pasture”: “The lazy man says his own home is not good enough.” Migration, especially for economic reasons, produces these desperate situations in which people are ready to be subjected to all forms of dehumanization. Situations that not only process them into a roughly hewn homogenous mass, but also miniaturize their stature. The figures, in assorted natural wood colors, are faceless, more like statistical data bound together by a dark gloomy fate. I have experienced real visa queues in the ’80s and ’90s in Lagos, Nigeria, which were awfully long, where people were goaded along with paddocks and along barricaded paths. But Visa queue is about any situation in which people are constrained by circumstances to compete in long queues—and this happens everywhere in the world. Everybody is reduced to the same height and scale, and at times identification by assigned numbers suggests the idea of statistics. 
El Anatsui art: Many came back, (2005). Liquor bottle tops and copper wire, 213 x 277 cm.
R.J. Preece: Sometimes artists from non-Western lands feel that viewers can gain significant insight into their works by learning more about their locational/situational context. Sometimes they feel that this is helpful, but it has its limits. And sometimes, it goes overboard and ends up isolating the artist, because the art has been packaged as “specialist art.” Where do you position your work in relation to the “context is necessary” continuum?
El Anatsui: People at times see my works without any knowledge of their context or even their titles, and they create their own meanings out of them. Some interpretations reveal how close we are as humans. I would agree that context is both an aid and a hindrance. In certain ways, it helps anchor a message, and depending on the viewer’s capacity and experience, he could go from there and expand or simply stop. I don’t think that I define myself strictly in a locational context. People, galleries, and museums make these definitions for their various reasons—some of them necessary, others not.
El Anatsui art: Akua’s Surviving Children, (1996). Tropical hardwoods, dimensions variable.
R.J. Preece: You studied in a Ghanaian university program that was affiliated with Goldsmiths College, University of London. Would your approach, at least during that time, be considered some sort of fusion of Bauhaus-oriented influence and local/regional input? And if so, what range of input would this be?
El Anatsui: I went to the College of Arts of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology at Kumasi, Ghana. In those days, the staff consisted of several British, German, and American teachers and a handful of Ghanaians. Certainly, foundation courses dealt with elements and principles of art and design, but like most art schools in West Africa at that time, there was not much local content. There was excellent teaching, but the content was simply what the times and circumstances offered. Most of us, after school and further exposure, now combine these experiences with local practices and other approaches. I don’t know what to call it or how to characterize it now. But the concern for principles and elements of design is probably discernible in my works. Take Earth Cloth, for instance.
 Click to see an extensive quotation of the Q&A featured by artistic director Robert Storr in the Venice Biennial 2007 catalogue.