He’s the Tops

The art world is waking up to the brilliance of El Anatsui, who weaves beauty out of bottle tops. Paula Weideger meets him ...

El Anatsui, grey-haired and softly spoken, sat across from me on a black leather sofa in the lobby of a New York hotel. We had met to talk about his large and shimmering hangings. “I see myself as a person and an African,” he began. And indeed he was born in Ghana and since 1975 has taught and sculpted at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He was quick to grasp what I was after when I asked a question but slow, sometimes very slow, to respond. The pauses between his words, between one sentence and the next, could be very long. It wasn’t that he was worried about saying the wrong thing. Although he is a modest man, he appears solidly self-confident. His pauses seemed to exist to create spaces in which he could think. “Professionally,” he finally added, “I see myself more as an artist in the world community of art.” So he is. But the world community of art took rather a long time to confirm his view. Fortunately, he wasn’t languishing.

Anatsui has “a huge reputation”, according to Chika Okeke-Agulu, a former student of his, now an art historian at Princeton. “He is one of the best-known names in (and I mean in the inside world of) contemporary Nigerian art. He is one of the leading figures associated with Nsukka School…arguably the most influ­ential art school in Nigeria.” Lagos, an hour’s flight from Nsukka, has long had its own flourishing gallery scene and with that, active collectors. The novelist Chinua Achebe and the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka are among those who own Anatsui’s work. The October Gallery in London has been showing his work since the mid-1990s. In 2006 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired one of his pieces for its African gallery. But it was only in 2007, aged 63, that Anatsui leapt into the heart of the wider art world. His springboard was the Venice Biennale, where he had exhibited in 1990, without making much impact.

*****
[Read the rest of Paula Weideger’s article in Intelligent Life: http://www.moreintelligentlife.com/content/paula-weideger/hes-tops%5D

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