El Anatsui interview: Material Splendor (2014)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 07 November 2015
This interview was previously published in Sculpture, November issue, 33(9), pp. 39-43.

When I first interviewed El Anatsui, back in 2006, I was captivated by his use of found materials, form, and social context, but I consciously steered away from critical and art historical issues. To me, there was a more interesting story that acknowledged the heart, particularly in the haunting sculpture Visa Queue (1992). Later, I was pleased to learn that Anatsui had been included in the main show of the 2007 Venice Biennale (and floored to see a long excerpt of my interview, which was published in the July/August 2006 issue of Sculpture, on his artist page in the catalogue [1]).

During the Biennale, El Anatsui’s work received a great deal of attention.[2] Since then, his visibility and the level of his opportunities have only increased. He has exhibited numerous works across the United States and around the world, and his CV lists more than 55 shows (some traveling to multiple venues), installations, group exhibitions, and biennials. The most recent of these is “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui,” which originated at the Akron Art Museum (2012) and then traveled to the Brooklyn Museum of Art (2013), the Des Moines Art Center (2013-14), and the Bass Museum of Art in Miami (2014).

R.J. Preece: The reception of your work has really taken off since I last spoke to you in 2006. Some high-level decision-makers called your installation the star of the show at the 2007 Venice Biennale. How did you feel about this? Did things change after that, or are they not really that different?

El Anatsui: It was probably due to the fact that I had almost a whole year to work on these pieces, as opposed to when we were invited to show at the 1990 Biennale in the first Africa pavilion. Then, the invitation came in at the last minute, so we had only two rather hectic months to prepare. I didn’t know that an artist could make several appearances at this forum, but I longed for a chance to go there again when I had enough notice.

I was pleasantly surprised when I was invited by the curator of the 2007 show, who I later learned saw my work at the Dakar Biennale a couple of years earlier. This time, I was included in the international segment of the Biennale.

I also had another invitation for an outdoor piece in Venice. I immediately visited the site to sit in the spaces and study and feel their ambience. The space that I was allocated in the Arsenale— two walls facing each other at the far end of the hall— called for a work consisting of two parts that “talked” across the space in between. One work used hard, geometric, masculine elements; and the other used soft, organic feminine elements— all from different portions of bottle caps. Together, they would make a conversation between a male and a female form.

I am gratified that the pieces eventually turned out to hold dialogues not only with each other, but also with many viewers.

With more invitations and other such demands, I’m increasingly spending more time inside the studio and less time outside of it. My studio timetable and space are, as a consequence, getting choked up, calling for fresh strategies. These are challenges I believe that the Biennale set up.

R.J. Preece: Do you feel you’ve changed as a result?

El Anatsui: Personally, I feel that the pressure and demands have changed me from being a hardline purist who believed in facing only one project at a time. Now, I’m increasingly forced by circumstances to line up and execute several projects simultaneously, and I’m beginning to notice their tendency to symbiotically feed off of and positively catalyze each other.

R.J. Preece: Ozone layer (2010), which was installed at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, is quite spectacular. Was the entire work shipped from Nsukka? Was it easy to install? [What materials did you use and what is that back story?]

El Anatsui: What struck me on the site visit, apart from the museum being a venue for mostly older forms of German nationalistic art, painting, and sculpture, was the strong gusty wind outside on the façade, where my piece was to be, with a little hiatus between it and the body of the building. I had just been exploring open formats with the liquor-bottle caps, so I took this opportunity to work not only with openness, but also with movement and, to some extent, with sound. I thought that I should take advantage of the wind, which would rustle the work’s loosely attached elements.

As opposed to the museum’s regionally based collection, I wanted my work to engage with more global and contemporary issues.

Like most of my pieces, which are very labor intensive, Ozone layer was fabricated in Nsukka with my assistants. The installation process called for some ingenuity, which the team provided by taking the segments up, folded zigzag and laid on a long ladder, and then attaching them by unraveling them from “up downwards,” occasionally lifting them up to create folds as they descended.

In previous projects, we always moved from “down upwards” or lifted the whole sheet up at one go. We learn from different approaches, and this, in turn, helps us to determine what to pay attention to in subsequent fabrication processes.

R.J. Preece: How about Broken Bridge (2012)?

El Anatsui: This work was installed on the façade of the Palais de Tokyo, a museum of couture. The new element that I introduced was the reflective sheet, the mirror. A handy compliment and reference to fashion, the mirror also effectively facilitates reflection, reviewing or looking back— and around— at oneself without physically turning to do so.

The venue faced the iconic Eiffel Tower, and I wanted to appropriate its image into the work as the identity or fashion signature of Paris. On clear days and at night, when the lights flickered on the hour, its reflection was incorporated into the piece.

R.J. Preece: Could you explain Gli (Wall) (2010)? In particular, the final room, which reminded me of a meditation space.

El Anatsui: This work was created after my visits— within a month or so—to three locations famed for their walls— Jerusalem, Berlin, and Notsie, which is an ancient walled city in Togo, prominent in the migration history of my people. After seeing these remnants of walls, or extant walls, I began to think again about walls as manmade objects to cordon off, sequester, or shut off others— ideas that I had explored in earlier works. Working with a format that was more open than before, I wanted to revisit the theme of transparency, which I think is what walls eventually end up having or provoking.

The space you are referring to was part of Gli’s presentation at the Brooklyn Museum. I found this interesting myself, because of how the curator and the installation team attempted to interpret the function of walls: they saw walls not as hiding or separating, but— because of the curiosity that they engender— as making what is behind them more visible. They can generate more transparency than opacity or provide a veil through which one sees— or filters— others.

I suspect that the space, a round-domed cupola, must also have contributed to what you describe as the serene or meditative nature of the installation. In Brooklyn, they used the height of the space effectively, giving the work a new, vertical orientation instead of the horizontal one preferred at the other venues. This played with the idea of imagination leaping over barriers and physically lifted one’s gaze up, like the experience one has on entering a Gothic cathedral.

R.J. Preece: How did you go about making Uwa (2012)?

El Anatsui: By rolling the loose linear elements that make up this piece, I felt at a particular point in the process that it had reached a kind of equilibrium. The resultant orb appeared to be simultaneously growing and disintegrating. On the one hand, there was something centrifugal and, on the other, something centripetal about it. For a long time, I have been interested in works with flexible, multiple, and ambiguous readings, works that can completely turn around in meaning. Our private or collective worlds appear to exhibit that appearance of developing and crumbling at the same time, or of not quite making sense.

R.J. Preece: I understand that you were particularly excited about your Parkett edition commission, Diaspora (2012). Could you tell me about that?

El Anatsui: On a very light note, this is a play on the word “diaspora” as it concerns my circumstances. It is erroneously taken for granted that I have to be outside my continent to be so characterized, but that is only one dimension of it. In effect, I am in a diaspora. It is a word or concept that is hackneyed and gradually losing its meaning or edge. With dispersals, admixtures, and intermingling across the globe, it will soon be gone. And it will sound strange for one to claim the source of a specific place.

Probably my real excitement with this project is the opportunity it gave me to examine images of my work on a miniature scale after working mostly at a monumental scale. And it also enabled me to look at the possibilities of multiples, which I had started to think about. It was a kind of Lilliputian ideal / strategy with the potential of reaching and engaging a larger audience on more everyday terms. At the beginning of my career, I had worked on such domestic-scale pieces, which were able to engage with anybody, not only aficionados.

R.J. Preece: In a 2009 article in the New York Times, you were asked if you felt satisfied by your recent success. You’re quoted as saying “My ambition is…to get better.”[3] Could you explain?

El Anatsui: I do not think I can go beyond that idea actually, as it encapsulates everything.


[1] The artist page was written by Robert Storr, the Venice Biennial director in the catalogue, also entitled “Think with the senses: Feel with the mind”. This text featured an extended quotation from R. Preece’s (2006). “Out of West Africa: Interview with El Anatsui”. Sculpture, 25(6), 34-9.

[2] Worth, Alexi. (22 February 2009). “El Anatsui”, New York Times.

[3] ibid.]