Hope in Hopeless Situations

– Maybe it is like thinking about the fate of people that have no hope and no place to look to, Golden Lion winner El Anatsui says about his use of bottle caps in art.

El Anatsui utenfor Kunstbanken i Hamar. Foto: Ingrid Blekastad.
El Anatsui in Hamar. Photo: Ingrid Blekastad.

This weekend, Kunstbanken Hedmark Kunstsenter in Hamar opens an exhibition featuring new sculptures by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, who received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at this year’s Venice Biennale upon the direct recommendation of curator Okwui Enwezor. According to Enwezor, El Anatsui may be the most important living African artist working on the continent today, and he described the accolade as “a worthy recognition of the originality of Anatsui’s artistic vision, his long-term commitment to formal innovation, and his assertion through his work of the place of Africa’s artistic and cultural traditions in international contemporary art”.

El Anatsui was born and educated in Ghana, but now lives in Nigeria, where he was professor of sculpture with the university in Nsukka for many years. As a key member of the so-called “Nsukka School” he was presented at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington in 1997, but his major international breakthrough came when he took part in the 2007 Venice Biennale, in the exhibition Artempo. Where time becomes art, curated by Axel Vervoordt. Here, El Anatsui attracted a great deal of attention by draping one of his monumental, shimmering sculptures made out of bottle caps across the façade of Palazzo Fortuny. This is not El Anatsui’s first visit to Norway – in 2008 he took part in the group exhibition Recycling, also at Kunstbanken in Hamar, where he presented the sculpture Earth’s Skin, a work which measures 5 x 8 metres and was subsequently bought by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

El Anatsui, Fresh and Fading Memories, Veneziabiennalen 2007.
El Anatsui, Fresh and Fading Memories, the Venice Biennale 2007.

First of all: Congratulations! What was it like to receive the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale?

Well, it was a big surprise. I wasn’t expecting it. I always thought that a lifetime achievement award was something you get when you are 80. So it was too sudden, but at the same time it was gratifying because it is a mark of recognition for what I have done in my 71 years. Also, it is an inspiration for me to work harder. Awards lift you up to a point below which you are not expected to perform.

In recent years, you have received international acclaim for your large, even monumental wall sculptures that look a little like abstract modernist carpets or paintings, murals. What are your inspirations?

I have seen so much art, and I cannot pick out something special that has inspired me. For me it is important that the sculptures are free and can take any shape they want. The bottle caps provide the limits of my sculptures. I was not thinking about iconic Ghanaian cloth, but the colours on the bottle caps are the same. I had worked with the bottle caps for a long time before people started talking about Gustav Klimt and comparing my work with his work. When I checked it, I found the relationship was rather superficial. The rectangular forms he used looks like the bottle caps I use, but I think our intentions are different.

You have exhibited in Norway before, also at Kunstbanken, as part of the group show Recycling in 2008. However, I read in an interview that you do not want to label your work as “recycling”, but rather as a transformation. You talk of the artwork reaching a higher dimension. Could you please elaborate on that?

Maybe my inspiration is that it gives more room, more hope to situations one would think of as lost; for instance a bottle cap is not supposed to have any value again, but when I pick them up and use them, they acquire new meaning. Maybe it is like thinking about the fate of people that have no hope and no place to look to. Being given a new lease of life. I give a new and higher status to the bottle caps, and that is not recycling.

El Anatsui, detalj fra en av de nye skulpturene som vises på Kunstbanken, 2015.
El Anatsui, detail from new sculpture, 2015.

What will you be presenting at Kunstbanken this time?

Seven pieces that are still in the bottle cap medium that I have worked in for many years – I originally thought it was going to have a short run as a medium, but it has continued to reveal new possibilities and fresh meanings. The title of the exhibition is dzi, which has many meanings in my language, Ewe, like increase, search, sing, give birth and heart. The fact that this word means so many things gives me the idea that it is like the art itself, and means many different things to different people according to what they bring to it. The work I am presenting at Kunstbanken this time is more of an expansion of the vocabulary I presented here seven years ago.

What are you working on at the moment, besides your show in Hamar?

Well, I am working for the show Atopolis in Mons in Belgium in June and the summer show of the Royal Academy in London. And later in the year I will be at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art somewhere in Japan.

Okwui Enwezor, who recommended you for the Golden Lion, is the first African curator of the Venice Biennale in its 120-year history. What impact do you think Enwezor has had on the international recognition of African art?

El Anatsui, detalj fra en av de nye skulpturene som vises på Kunstbanken, 2015.
El Anatsui, detail from new sculpture, 2015.

I think the impact of Enwezor has been in three ways: He founded the journal Nka, which is about contemporary art in Africa; as a curator he has given visibility to art made by African artists, and he has given African artists opportunities to be shown in a world forum.

Talking of “African art”, I am aware that the term might be considered much too wide to make any sense at all…

The term “African art” is like narrowing or pigeonholing. For a long period what was shown as art was from Western sources, and it wasn’t called European art, it was just called art. The danger of pigeonholing is that it narrows people’s expectations, it limits them to certain preconceptions. They will not look beyond this or even approach works with an open mind. Music is music, art is art, science is science. When I listen to music I am listening to the sound and how the elements relate to each other; I do not necessarily hear it as music from a specific country.

What would you like to change in the art world today?