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Lagos museum 'X-rays' Anatsui at 70

17 April 2014, 06:40

Lagos - To mark the 70th birthday of one of Africa's most accomplished living artists, a Lagos museum chose to focus on pretty much anything but El Anatsui's globally renowned work.

Instead, three decades of payslips from the University of Nigeria, where Anatsui has taught since 1975, are collected in a binder that hangs by a string in the centre of the room.

Handwritten letters dealing with minutiae such as train tickets are stuck to the wall.

"The objective was to X-ray the man" whose massive influence on African art is impossible to quantify, said Jude Anogwih, a curator at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Lagos, where "El Anatsui: Playing with Chance".

Bottle top phenomenon
The Ghanaian-born Anatsui's first big step toward international acclaim came in 1990 when he and four others became the first artists from sub-Saharan Africa invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale, one of the world's most prestigious art showcases.

His prominence has grown steadily since, including shows in the world's cultural capitals, but 1999 is widely seen as a turning point.

That was the year Anatsui first began working with the twist-off tops of liquor bottles, which, at his barn-sized workshop in southeast Nigeria, he flattens and manipulates into vast, brilliant tapestries, several of which have sold for nearly $1 million (720 000 euros).

For the CCA in Lagos, not displaying one of these tapestries was partly a practical choice: the small, box-like showroom in a museum crammed at the top of an office building could hardly accommodate Anatsui's bottle top pieces, which measure 3.5 by five metres (11 by 16 feet) or more.

But, as Anogwih said, "giving more light to the personality" of the notoriously private Anatsui was also a worthwhile goal as the artist enters the latter stage of his career.

'Global star'

"I don't know whether the objective is to attract an audience," Anatsui told AFP late last year at his hilltop house in the quiet town of Nsukka, home to the University of Nigeria and some 600 kilometres (370 miles) from the commercial and economic hub of Lagos.

"I think that is something that happens organically or naturally if (an artist) produces work which is worth attention."

Over the previous year, Anatsui's work had earned even greater acclaim, buoyed by his first-ever solo exhibit in a New York museum.

The New York Times praised "Gravity and Grace" at the Brooklyn Museum as "majestic" and "sumptuous" and called Anatsui a "global star."

Achieving such stardom is tougher for artists from Africa, especially one who has chosen to remain based at a government-run university in Nigeria, a country where public education has largely collapsed.

"Being in this part of the world puts you at a disadvantage," he said. "But maybe an advantage as well. It gives you the peace of mind to concentrate on your work."

Just an artist

Anatsui has earned massive acclaim in the West -- and the wealth that has come with it -- but he is perplexed about the way some Western critics have characterised his work.

The bottle caps that he used are largely red and black, similar to the kente cloth indigenous to Ghana.

"Lots of people just focused on the colours of the bottle caps, which I didn't create anyway," he said. "I'm just someone who finds them and uses them."

Critics "got stuck on the idea of kente," he said, explaining that in working with bottle caps he was exploring ideas of "free form" and "repurposing" everyday material.

References to kente persisted in the reviews and commentary on his Brooklyn show, and Anatsui said he is now creating single-coloured tapestries so his work "does not have that... reference".

It is inevitable -- and perhaps understandable -- for Western critics and art patrons to describe the work of African artists through so-called African themes like the importance of indigenous cloth, Anatsui said.

But he would much rather his work be judged without too much focus on where he lives and works.

"I think that art is a universal phenomenon, and I don't think it helps to make too much of the geography thing. You can come into geography if there is need," he said.

"But you are speaking a universal language, and artists would want to be known as artists, not African artists."

The show closes on Sunday.

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