Re-tracing the Milestones of El Anatsui’s Four Scores 

El Anatsui, now aged 80, soared to fame to become one of Africa’s most influential and successful artists by challenging traditional notions of sculpture. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports 

Sometime in 2017, Professor Emeritus El Anatsui welcomed two visitors—Kevin Ejiofor and Dr. Ayo Adewunmi—at his Nsukka studio. These two prominent figures from the Life in My City Art Festival were in town to brief him about the annual youth-focused art extravaganza and, in the course of their conversation, enthusiastically filled him in on the exhilarating progress and vibrant innovations so far of the event, which was just about to stomp into its tenth edition.

While they spoke, the esteemed artist listened with rapt attention to their animated exposé, eagerly taking in every detail and possibly envisioning a brighter future for this artistic endeavour. Nonetheless, he expressed surprise that he had been unaware of this endeavour for so long. His offer to sponsor three of the festival’s category prizes and generously donate enough funds to enable the organisers of the event, often known by its acronym LIMCAF, to sustain the tempo—a gesture that obviously gladdened the two visitors—shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with his long history of identifying with serious artistic endeavours. Neither should the fact that he has ever since been sponsoring the festival’s top six winners for all-expenses-paid two-week trips to the Senegalese capital for the Dakar Art Biennale, which is otherwise known as Dak’Art.

At the latest count, there have been 32 beneficiaries of this largesse so far, and there would be 12 more (six top winners of the competition from each of the preceding years) added to this number this year. According to Dr. Adewunmi, the elderly artist who turns 80 today (February 4) has also supported the Art is Everywhere initiative and the Pan African Circle of Artists (also known as PACA), among several other artistic endeavours, including exhibitions.

True: no cognoscenti in the realm of contemporary art would have needed the gift of prophecy to predict that Anatsui’s one-of-a-kind sculptures were destined to adorn some of the world’s most exalted art spaces and museums, eliciting admiration from enthusiasts and art aficionados alike. Nonetheless, who would have imagined that it was just his peculiar predilection for deciphering art even in the least suspected places that would eventually blaze his trail to international recognition?

That penchant of his for blurring the boundaries of aesthetic canons has been known to be the theme song of his lustrous career from as far back as his keen devotees would remember. It was indeed this predilection for nonconformity that ultimately nudged him on to an extraordinary hunt for those elusive “Eureka!” moments. This was also what wrenched him away from the grips of anonymity as the youngest of his father’s 32 children in the small Ghanaian town of Anyako, as well as from the drudgery of an ivory tower existence at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to celebrity status. It was during his time in Kumasi, Ghana, that he stumbled upon the mesmerising “adinkra” motifs, which prompted a dramatic shift in his view of sculpture. Anatsui, who was no longer constrained by conventional aesthetic standards, came to perceive sculpture as a dynamic inquiry into a subject’s intricate dynamics. His 2007 installation, “Intermittent Signals,” which took on a remarkably different form for its 2011 display, is a compelling example of this theory in action.

This also explains why he had, in an interview a few years ago, frowned at the apparent fixation of much of the LIMCAF entries on the human body, even as he commended the fact that some of these entries were produced with non-traditional media. “There are more exciting things to do with such media than the human body,” he argued during that interview. “When you go into the art world now, you will see that people have gone beyond depicting human figures.”

His artistic inclination has, in any case, never been known to lean towards depicting human forms. Indeed, none of his works, currently housed in some of the world’s most prestigious museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, and the Smithsonian, adhered to the well-trodden paths of traditional aesthetic canons. Rather, he has lately come to be known and celebrated for his rippling metal tapestries draped over walls. One notable one was displayed at the 2007 Venice Biennale; another, a 37-foot-high sculpture made of recycled pressed tin and mirrors woven together with copper wire, titled “Broken Bridge II,” was displayed at New York’s High Line, an elevated park built on an old freight rail line in Manhattan in 2012. “El Anatsui has evolved from creating traditional to monumental works that take on modern material wastes to engage, challenge, and dialogue with size space, generating visual experience beyond words,” corroborates Jerry Buhari, a professor of fine art at Ahmadu Bello University’s Fine Art Department.

Of course, he has also held several other notable exhibitions worldwide in high-profile venues in the UK, the US, Germany, France, and Spain, among others. Besides his appearance at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and earlier in 1990, he has also been at the Liverpool Biennale in 2002, the Moscow Biennale in 2009, the 8th Osaka Sculpture Triennale in 1995, the first Johannesburg Biennale in 1995, the 5th Havana Biennale in 1994, and the 5th Gwangju Biennale in 2004, among others.

Back in the Nigerian art scene, he remains one of the leading lights whose works chalk up record-breaking sales at both local and international art auctions and who has significantly impacted several generations of artists. Indeed, the Venice Biennale Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement—one among many of the awards he has received so far—duly “acknowledges not just his recent successes internationally but also his artistic influence amongst two generations of artists working in West Africa.”

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