At any one time, there can be 30 pairs of hands at work in El Anatsui's studio in Nsukka, south-eastern Nigeria. They crush bottle cap after bottle cap, folding the aluminium with careful fingers, before piercing and linking these together with copper wire.
Anatsui insists on an atmosphere of silent industry. Dressed in overalls, he walks constantly around the team, watching strips of aluminium begin to form thin, rolled carpets of dull metal. The artist is looking for unbalanced repetition of colour and calling for more burnished reds here, yellows there. As Anatsui directs his men, it is like watching a conductor and orchestra.
Anatsui is amongst the most celebrated contemporary artists working in Africa. He has exhibited widely, with notable shows at the Hayward Gallery and Centre Pompidou. An extensive touring retrospective of his work, When I Last Wrote To You About Africa, continues its tour of North America until 2013.
Born in Anyako, Ghana, in 1944, Anatsui left in 1975 to take up a teaching post in the arts faculty at the University of Nigeria. He has remained there since, attracted by the diversity of Africa's most populous country, but initially drawn by sankofa, which translates as 'go back and get it' in the Ghanaian Akan language. This urge was a search to excavate and resuscitate a relationship with the cultural forms that existed in West Africa before the colonial era began. In his research, Anatsui discovered a tradition of metaphysical enquiry – a forgotten thread of abstract thought in Ghana about the nature of omnipotence and how to achieve versatility of visual and linguistic forms. It was during his 'going back' that Anatsui's practise as a sculptor developed, and from it he took a guiding idea that, "the world can be looked at in other ways than through the eyes".
There is a tactile sense that permeates the artist's work, which emphasises the sheer hard work that goes into creating each piece. For example, his early work comprised using hot charcoal to brand Ghanaian symbols onto the wooden trays that market traders in his homeland use to hawk their wares. As with his later bottle cap sculptures, each piece is made from an object that has changed hands several times before it reaches the studio. Critics often refer to his materials as the detritus of everyday life in Africa, but part of the power of these works is the way in which these found materials have travelled from hand to hand.
Anatsui's work at the Venice Biennale in 2007, in which he draped the facade of Palazzo Fortuny with a vast bottle cap sculpture, brought home the power that these works have to a wider audience. It also cemented his desire to escape from a certain contextual trap. As he says, "The label of 'African artist' comes with so much political and social baggage, which you don't need." It seems fitting that as Anatsui is saying these words, we are standing in a hotel lobby in Dubai while he is in transit back to Nigeria. This is someone whose art has crossed national boundaries. He also acknowledges that in his position, he is "exposed, and on the frontline of a battle to get African art recognised to a certain level".
Semantics are important to him. He's precise about how to refer to the bottle cap pieces: "These are sculptures," he says. "Not tapestries. Nor are they woven, they're produced: This is not textile work that I'm doing here."
Anatsui's resistance to such labelling is linked to his dismissal of geographic pigeonholing. It's an aversion to drawing his artistic practise into the realm of craft. At the same time, he avoids anything that locks the works to a specific reading or body of influences.
It is only once we've stood in front of Anatsui's work that this becomes clear. The bottle caps become a shimmering, textural visualisation of freedom itself, the levity of non-constraint. Each cap is linked with wire in a way that allows it to bend and shape according to how the piece is placed. Anatsui rarely instals his work, instead leaving it to the discretion of the curator to hang the work and to let it fold according to their own sense of what looks right. "A lot of people are scared of that freedom," says the artist. "They want you to come and dictate to them. People have been brought up on a diet that says, 'This is artwork and it should be put on the wall in this way'. By creating a form that is so free and not fixed, you can perhaps bring out the artist in those who would place the work."
In 2010, Susan Vogel, Professor of Art History at Columbia University and a specialist in contemporary art in Africa, produced Fold Crumple Crush, a documentary that recorded Anatsui as he prepared for his appearance at the Venice Biennale, and which captures the process of producing these artworks. One of the discussions is about a 'nomadic aesthetic'. New World Map, a piece executed in 2009 and the centrepiece of Bonhams' forthcoming Africa Now sale, exemplifies this. Constructed from thousands of bottlecaps, Anatsui redraws the globe to make the Old World – Asia, Africa and Europe – merge into one mass, while America is seemingly absent from this continental merger.
This is where we find the roots of Anatsui's nomadic aesthetic. It is an exaltation of the movement of people, and simultaneously a celebration of the freedom inherent in the work's form and its use of cast-off, passed-on materials. Free from the restraints of geography, tradition or conventions of how art is produced and presented, the work points to the potential of thoughts set free. Like all of these bottle cap sculptures, its undulating surface is an embodiment of the spontaneous, creative mind in motion.
Christopher Lord is a freelance journalist based in Dubai.
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