Escaping Categories

This summer, El Anatsui’s massive works can be experienced at Kunstbanken Hamar. KUNSTforum met with him for a brief talk on his work, inspirations and categories.

El Anatsui, Dzi II. Foto: Tobias Nordvik, ©Kunstbanken

El Anatsui, Dzi II. Foto: Tobias Nordvik, ©Kunstbanken

For quite some time now, El Anatsui (b. 1944) has received appraisals throughout the international art world for his monumental installations, especially those involving bottle caps. The latest acknowledgement came in the guise of one of the most important awards: Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, from the La Biennale di Venezia. In the words of the board, the award “acknowledges not just his recent successes internationally, but also his artistic influence amongst two generations of artists working in West Africa.”

However, it was his enormous installation draped on the façade of Palazzo Fortuny during La Biennale di Venezia in 2007 that the Western art world really seemed to open their eyes for El Anatsui’s thought provoking and aesthetically striking work.

Last month, El Anatsui opened a rather major solo exhibition in Norway. And not in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo, where one might expect to encounter such solid and high-ranking artists. Instead, you’ll have to travel to Kunstbanken at Hamar, the art centre in Hedmark County. A few years back they included some works of El Anatsui in a group exhibition, and now he’s back with several new works, some of them even site-specific.

Monumental Forms
El Anatsui’s work are monumental, to say the least. On YouTube one can see a video of how his works are installed; by using three lifts and twice as many people to install one single piece.

‘This is due to their size; they are actually quite light, but they are big, delicate and soft,’ El Anatsui explains.

El Anatsui, Rehearsal. Foto: Tobias Nordvik, ©Kunstbanken

El Anatsui, Rehearsal. Foto: Tobias Nordvik, ©Kunstbanken

The almost flowing carpet-like works are organized onto the wall, with El Anatsui making wave-like textures in them and thus making them come to life. In some ways, they can come off as textile, or at lest something soft, related to fabrics. Depending on how they are installed, one could easily see them termed as both sculptures and installations. But El Anatsui does not want to label them.

‘They are just art, they don’t belong to any category. I call them “free forms”, and I install them differently in every place.’

He explains how the various ways of installing the works have changed throughout his career and thus altered how they can be perceived.

‘The first pieces I made were hanging in the middle of the studio so you could move around them. But then the galleries and other spaces tend to put them on the wall. If they hang, they are sculptural.’

Poor Media
Throughout his career, El Anatsui has worked with a wide range of different materials and medias. He has used clay, driftwood, railway sleepers and wood. His latest inclusion to the material repertoire, and what now seems to his signature material, is bottle-tops.

‘All the works in this exhibition are in the same medium that I have been using for quite some time now; bottle-tops. Aside from that, there are different ideas and I play with colour, a strong attribute of the medium.’

The bottle-tops are woven together with copper thread, as if the caps were textiles or bits and pieces of different garments.

El Anatsui, Rehearsal, detalj. Foto: Tobias Nordvik, ©Kunstbanken

El Anatsui, Rehearsal, detalj. Foto: Tobias Nordvik, ©Kunstbanken

You once said The amazing thing abut working with these metallic fabrics is that the poverty of the materials in no way precludes the telling of rich and wonderful stories. Can you elaborate on your use of such diverse materials?

‘Apart from the bottle caps, I have used media you can call “poor”. They have been put to use and after that left to rot. I meet them, say hello to them and work with them.’

‘What I do is salvaging the lives of the downtrodden. I give them new lives, a more enhanced life, a higher life than previous one, you might say.’

You say there are stories in these different mediums. Are you referring to any particular stories, or just the fact that because of the materials previous usage, there are stories inherent in them, known or unknown?

The materials have been used before and they have stories because of that. And it’s not just bottle-tops. In my context, the bottle-tops are objects that connect my part of the world through trade (fair or unfair) with the rest of the world. There is some kind of connection. Also, remember the fact that a drink is a great socialising factor; it has the ability to connect people. So in the process of linking the bottle-tops there are symbolic implications inherent in that. There are loose connections, yes, as between nations, regions and individuals, which relationships are never permanent.

The art world has always had an inherent need to categorize, both the artists and the artworks. This is – understandably – probably a consequence of wanting to (re-)write art history, but when it comes to contemporary art, it may also prove fruitful to let go of the many labels. Many may have tried to avoid the constant labelling, or at least to perceive something as multi-layered or possibly part of several categories. Still, we’re not quite there yet.

El Anatsui, Dzi I. Foto: Tobias Nordvik, ©Kunstbanken

El Anatsui, Dzi I. Foto: Tobias Nordvik, ©Kunstbanken

Much in the same fashion, the art world seems to still clutch to a divide between the Western world and the South and Eastern art world, the latter often understood as developing nations and continents. As a result, artists coming from any other country than the Western ones, are usually categorised on these premises – as African, Asian, Chinese and so on – whereas if you’re from a European country, you’re simply an artist.

Avoiding categorising on several levels is one of the things important to El Anatsui. As an artist coming from Ghana, thus being subject to the label “African artist” – as if the African continent is all the same – he experiences that his works are interpreted on these grounds.

‘They always categorise me more on my geographical background rather than as an artist. But you would never point out that a European artist is European; they are just artists!’

‘I think this kind of categorisation is bad, because when you categorise people that way, there’s a tendency to start looking for elements confirming the categorisation, and that is limiting. As artists we have the whole world as our kind of inspiration.’

El Anatsui provides an example:
‘Recently I was in France to exhibit, and on the gallery walls I had several works installed, I created some waves in them as I usually do. And then, at one point, I decided to put stakes in there as well. Immediately people asked me if the stakes were referencing the staff that the African chiefs might use.’

‘By not looking beyond and past certain categories, you are narrowing the interpretation of the work, and you are narrowing the mind.’

El Anatsui also speaks eagerly of avoiding categorising of his art works, both in terms of origin and in terms of media or technique. As both kinds of categorising in his point of view are narrowing the possible perceptions of an artwork. Not to exclude such interpretations of course, but to encourage the viewers to keep more than one thought at once whilst looking at an artwork. Texts on his works however, say otherwise.

In the press release and many other places, it is stated that you in your work are commenting on West-Africas cultural and political history, together with worries regarding our use (or misuse) of resources and natures vulnerability. Can you elaborate?

‘It might be an environmental comment, but in a very small way. If you talk about being environmental, you speak of something that has an impact. Agnes Denes project of 10 000 trees as an environmental art that will most definitely have an impact on the surroundings. My collecting of some bottle caps does not have an impact like this.’

‘However, the collecting of bottle caps gives me an impression of the amount of drinking that goes on around the world. Also, the drinks have different names and so I sort of collect the names as well. And the drinks are concerned with what is happening in the society; an event or anything else that happened. This way, you might say that collecting the bottle caps gives me a kind of sociological profile of a place.’

‘There is something universal about the bottle caps; you can find them all over the world. And they will say something about that part of the world. Anyhow, there are so many layers of interpretations, this is just one of many.’

What about the West-African history?

‘I think it is part of what I mentioned already. People drink all over the world. For instance, in 1990 ECOMOG was established. It is an acronym for The Economic Community of West African Monitoring Group, a West-African multilateral armed force established by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as a formal arrangement for separate armies to work together against the riots in Liberia and the on-going war there. A distiller decided to memorialise this by naming a brand of his liquor after the episode. So it’s part of the history of the region. That’s one of the ways these works preserve history.’

‘Also, people regard my work as having the same colour scheme as an iconic cloth. But you have the cloth without the colour scheme also. So I think that is kind of a coincidence.’

El Anatsui, Focus. Foto: Tobias Nordvik, ©Kunstbanken

El Anatsui, Focus. Foto: Tobias Nordvik, ©Kunstbanken

‘As an artist you certainly don’t have a control over what your work can be stretched to mean. But it can make sense of course; local drinks made in a part of Nigeria, are by the same people who make the cloths. So if they are choosing colours for caps for their drinks, or choosing colours, of course the colours cannot be the much different from what probably their ambience and other factors expose them to’

You have quite recently retired after holding several professor positions throughout your career. What are your future plans, and what drives you to keep up the work?

‘To continue living. I retired and concentrated more on making art. You don’t retire from art, you know! And art has to be made. That drives me.’

What are your inspirations then, if art has to be made?

‘To produce something that lifts the human spirit or affects people positively.’

Why art is important?

‘Without art the world would be very boring. Art is a way to renew the old, to take an old idea and represent it anew. It is a way of repeating the same message in new ways to get fresh attention or recognition’

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