Sunday 23 March 2014

'Playing With Chance'... Celebrating Anatsui, a 'Nigerian master born in Ghana', at 70

By Tajudeen Sowole

Inside the moderate art gallery space of the organisers, Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, admirers of master sculptor, El Anatsui and other enthusiasts had a rare opportunity of peeping into the renowned artist's studio.

It was a retrospective opening for the novel and special art exhibition titled Playing With Chance - still showing till April 12, 2014 - to celebrate the Ghanaian artist, Anatsui at 70. The contents of the exhibition suggest that CCA has lifted the artist's studio from Nsukka to Lagos.

Guest Speaker, Mrs Sinmidele Adesanya of Mydrim Gallery (left), director, Centre for Contemporary Art CCA, Lagos and the celebrant, Prof El Anatsui at the opening of the exhibition

 Born in Anyako, Ghana in February, 1944, Anatsui was trained a sculptor at the College of Art, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana from 1965 to 1968. From 1975 till date, he has been teaching sculpture at the University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka, Enugu State, Southeast of Nigeria.

Having spent a greater part of his professional career in Nigeria, Anatsui is among the world's renowned contemporary artists. Interestingly, his sudden rise into the international art space, which started over 13 years ago, coincided with the art world’s increasing interest, particularly in fresh materials and medium as well as contents of art. In fact, Anatsui's popularity across the world within a short period is perhaps unprecedented for any African artist. 

From his big size wood sculpture titled Monuments, to cloth series made of soft metal bottle tops, Anatsui's works, largely promoted by October Gallery, London, U.K in the late 1990s through early 2000s started ascending the global art graph with an unprecedented speed. 

Currently, he is arguably the most sought-after African artist; he is exhibited across the world, constantly.

Celebrating Anatsui at 70 in Nigeria with Playing With Chance confirms the country's art community’s claim over the artist's nationality. The guest speaker at the opening of the exhibition, Mrs Sinmidele Adesanya of Mydrim Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos stressed the point when she described Anatsui as "the only Nigerian master born in Ghana."

Indeed the aggressive and ebullience of creative contents in the work of Anatsui and its incendiary into global fame, within a short period, are typically of the assertiveness characteristics of Nigerians. Anatsui's work and fame have confirmed that the environment, in which an artist works, irrespective of the peculiar challenges, cannot be divorced from the tone of the art produced. 

This much also resonates in the contents of Playing With Chance, an exhibition, which summarises the on and off studio behaviour of Anatsui, in the last three and half decades or more. Glassed in a box-like presentation at the immediate entrance of the gallery are reviews, mostly from newspaper cuttings on the artist's work, published within and outside Africa. Included are other reviews written by the artist for exhibition catalogues and journals.

And if it were possible to read the mind of a master, through the taste of his collection of other artists, a set of works tagged From the Collection of El Anatsui offers a clue into the thoughts of the celebrant. The works, glassed against the wall, are actually selected from 35 pieces created by one of Anatsui’s colleague at UNN, Prof Uche Okeke, 'from 1938 to 1981.'

If you ever wondered how Anatsui's wood works started, a collection of Omooba Yemisi Shyllon, of the artist, dated 1973, offers a clue: the two-piece saucers, in wood with native African designs of motifs and signs draw a thin line between art and craft.

Memories of the master’s knowledge transfer to the future come in three of the works of his ex-students Nnenna Okore,  Lucy Azubuike and Amarachi Okafor shown at the event.

From the wood panels to pieces of soft metals sewn together, the themes of Anatsui's work have been expressed, basically, with focus on native African fabrics, some of which include, Tsiatsia, Man’s cloth, Duvor, Gawu, New World Map. However, material or medium has been so profound, changing at unhurried pace too. At 70, the artist is not getting younger, but his art is. How much of time is really left to accommodate more material and forms?  “I do not know now," he told me during a chat shortly before the celebration opened formally at CCA. "The medium I use changes, sometimes it comes when I am even unprepared."

If Anatsui were not in the academia, his art would, most likely have been confined to craft, particularly during the era he set out to broaden the scope of contemporary sculpture.

A section of the guests during Playing With Chance

Adesanya recalled meeting Anatsui for the first time in 2000 during a Bisi Silva collaborative project with Ford Foundation. Convinced that the artist "has taken sculpture beyond the boundaries the we used to know," Adesanya's Mydrim Gallery would later, in 2001, along with Nimbus Gallery, Lagos, showed 11 graduating students of Anatsui in a group exhibition titled New Energies. Curated by the teacher, the exhibition featured works of students: Joseph Eze, Aneke, Chika, Ezeani, Chiamaka

Kanu, Chikaogwu Lorliam, Martin Nnadi, Chidi Onyishi, Eramus
Okore, Onuzulike, Ozioma and Onyishi, Uchechukwu.

The response from mainstream Lagos art scene to the exhibition, according to Adesanya was like: ‘are these really art?' 'Why did Mydrim accept these as art?' But 13 years after, speaking about the same artist who inspired the controversial exhibition, Adesanya was joyous and stated: "I am glad that Anatsui is the only Nigerian master born in Ghana who is one of the greatest artists in the world today.” She added that the artist, even at 70, "has not reached his limit yet."

A fellow Ghanaian and artist, Rikki Wemega -Kwawu who was in Lagos for the first time, just to celebrate Anatsui, also acknowledged the global status of the artist and prayed, "God gives him long life to continue."

Curator of Playing with Chance, Silva told the gathering that, for CCA, it was innovative to celebrate, differently, an artist whose works have been shown all over the world.  “The exhibition is shaped primarily through archival material in an attempt to present an alternative insight into the work and career of the artist.”

Some of the materials include the artist’s letters, planning strategies for exhibitions and business documents on transactions, even as odd an exhbit as the artist’s salary pay slips at UNN for over 36 years.

From one of the artist’s most recent exhibitions, a solo titled Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, held last year at Brooklyn Museum, New York, U.S, comes an interview shown as video installation at CCA.

Anatsui’s exploits on the global art market gave him an auction record in 2013. It was a world record at Bonhams’ Africa Now art auction in the U.K, which had the artist’s woven tapestry of flattened bottle caps, titled 'New World Map' sold for £541, 250 ($850,544). According to Bonhams, “The huge masterwork by El Anatsui (born 1944) – a magisterial tapestry measuring 11ft by 16ft (350x500cm) - is similar to work the artist has shown at the Venice Biennale.”

On the art exhibitions and special commission space abroad, Anatsui, in 2008 made a double. In his tour exhibition Gawu continued at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC. The tour had took off a year earlier at Fowler Museum, University of California, UCLA, Los Angeles.

Also in May, 2008, Anatsui emerged as the third artist recorded on London's Channel 4 sculptural work known as The Big 4, an installation that brings the '4' logo to life on the steps of the channel's Horse ferry Road headquarters.

During one of his past exhibitions, the artist had disclosed the inspiration behind his cloth themes as emanating from the popular Ghanaian fabric, Kente, a strip-woven cloth of the Asante and Ewe peoples of Ghana and Togo. Anatsui explained: "It is a festive dress for special occasions-traditionally worn by men as a kind of toga and by women as an upper and lower wrapper."

Some of Anatsui’s solo exhibitions included Earth Growing Roots, SDSU University Art Gallery, San Diego State University (2009); El Anatsui: Nyekor, Spazio Rossana Orlandi, Milan (2006); El Anatsui: Gawu, Oriel Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno (2003–2008); Hakpa, French Cultural Centre, Lagos (1997); El Anatsui, October Gallery, London (1995); Old and New: An Exhibition of Sculpture in Assorted Wood, National Museum, Lagos (1991); Venovize: Ceramic Sculptures, Faculty of Arts and Design, Cornwall College (1987); Pieces of Wood: An Exhibition of Mural Sculpture, The Franco-German Auditorium, Lagos (1987); Sculptures, Photographs, Drawings, Goethe-Institut, Lagos (1982); Wood Carvings, Community for the Arts, Cummington, Massachusetts (1980); Broken Pots: Sculpture by El Anatsui, British Council Enugu/Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria Nsukka (1979); Wooden Wall Plaques, Asele Art Gallery, Nsukka (1976).

The artist is a recipient of several honours and awards such as Prince Claus Award, Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, Amsterdam (2009); Public's Prize, 7. Triennale der Kleinplastik, Stuttgart (1999); Bronze Prize, 9th Osaka Sculpture Triennale (1998); Kansai Telecasting Corporation Prize, Osaka Sculpture Triennale (1995); Honorable Mention (joint), 44th Venice Biennial (1990); Honorable Mention, 1st Ghana National Art Competition, Accra (1968).

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