In conversation with EL ANATSUI

In 2015, the picturesque town of Nsukka played host to scores of local and international participants comprising culture entrepreneurs, academics, artists and art promoters at the Anya fulu Ugo art conference and exhibition. The interdisciplinary event was organized by the Faculty of Arts, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in honour of El Anatsui and Obiora Udechukwu, two cerebral art professors for their global academic and professional successes. Ghana-born and Nigeria based Professor El Anatsui has been described as perhaps the most significant living African artist working on the continent today.  In this interview with Agwu Enekwachi from his hilltop residence in Nsukka, Anatsui talks about his career as an artist and an academic as well as his views on current art trends

El Anatsui Chambers of Memory, Ceramics, 1977.

After spending 36 years as an academic, how would you describe the impact of your work at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka?

 In everything one does, you start and hopefully develop upon the foundation. I started with the curriculum as drawn by the department and tried to follow it as much as I could. As time went on I saw the need to introduce things I thought students needed to know and which might take some time to be accepted in the curriculum. I mean things like the business aspect of art which is found in many other professions. The students are exposed so that they don’t come out and become victims of unscrupulous people. When you talk about the business of something, the business people are always there also to make their cut. So that is one of the things that I think I introduced. I don’t know if the students know how important it is. Because I don’t see them exposed to situations where they can call on such and use it. Most of the time we take things for granted. When we started, we did not know some of these things, in the process we were kind of cheated in some instances like copyright laws and rights of artists. The curriculum kind of limited students to certain traditional media but even long before there was a change from the National Universities Commission which brought in things like indigenous art forms and techniques. I started exposing my students to new media in order to widen their scope so they are not working only in traditional media like clay, wood and cement which I thought was just getting too much focus for students. So those are some of the things that I would say I have done as far as teaching is concerned.

El Anatsui with his sculpture, Earth Goddess (1982)at Abuja Building, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he taught Sculpture for many years

Art is constantly evolving by the day, after getting to the level you are, I would want to hear your definition of art today. Has the definition of art changed from how you viewed it when you started?

Certainly, they have been a big change in what art is or what can be art. I wouldn’t say the definition of art. There are so many fresh ideas, fresh takes that many artists have brought to the discipline and such that you wouldn’t want to talk about definition. It is something which is not kind of stopped yet but continues to go on as long as you call it art. Art is one of the areas in human Endeavour that you have the freedom to do things without being prosecuted. They call it artistic license. There is a lot you can do in other areas that you can be prosecuted. That is why cartoonists can cartoon and say or depict things that you can’t say with words. Even some cartoonists equally use words as well and the freedom that is supposed to define art is what people are getting more aware of. Art is one of the areas that human spirit is free to do things as against other areas of school curricula for instance where you have what is called convergent thinking. You know like you ask a question and there is only one right answer, which is convergent thinking. If you say 2+2, the answer is expected to be four. If you light a fire and take it to an oxygen tank and let out oxygen, if you light a match and put it there, it will burn. That is convergent thinking. Art is one of the few areas (the creative areas are generally divergent thinking) If you ask a question to 19 persons, you may have 19 different answers and all of them are correct because each person would be viewing things in his own distinct unique way. That being the case what we have seen happen in recent years is what I can call the growth of divergent thinking. That leaves us with a lot of freedom. Art is not something you define, it is something which is evolving and it is evolving in the right way.     

El Anatsui, Visa Queue, Wood, 1992.

The growth of divergent thinking as you mentioned and as referenced by the Anya fulu Ugo art exhibition is a representation of these changing landscapes and expanding frontiers of art. The changes are in terms of media, processes and ideas and may be anchored in the work you and several others have done, thus the questions about art are being interpreted in more ways. What is your assessment of this trend?

In terms of the media people work with and in terms of processes as well as ideas, what I think is yet to be fine-tuned is the fact that there is yet a proper understanding of the media. For instance, in the exhibition, there is someone who did something with tires (vehicle tires) but I did not see any evidence of tire there. In other words, he mangled the medium in such a way that you don’t see it at all, in which case he is trying to see it like clay. A tire is a tire and you should see it as a tire. Clay is soft and malleable and you can shape anything out of it. It does not have a persona. The tire when we see it we should expect to see that it is tire. So, anybody exploring it should endeavour to understand what it can do and how to keep its integrity in the work rather than destroy it completely. We are not looking for just shapes but for shapes which relate materials and the work together. Even if you shred it, it should be in such a way that it still has an element of its identity. So that people can say okay this is tire. It is talking about movement, travel and about distance.  So, I didn’t see any allusion to the uses or the function of the tire in the work in question. That’s what I mean by understanding the media and keeping its integrity so that the media is also talking not you alone. Coming from the background of using clay and cement that is what results in attempts to work with newer materials. So that is the major thing I see that needs to be fine-tuned. But in terms of growth of media and process, there is certainly an awareness that makes the young artist know that they have a wide range of media to select from. There are still more things. Right now, everybody is working with tangible things. There are very few people working with intangible things like sound and light. These mediums are there to be exploited or explored.

El Anatsui, Group Photo, Wood, 1987.

But people relate Visual Arts or Fine Arts to tangibility, what you can touch mainly. Do you mean using light or sound in combination with other materials, as mixed media?

One can combine sound or light with the three-dimensional work but it can also be done on its own as a medium. When you say visual art, it means you are restricting it to things you can perceive with the eye.  Art is something you perceive and when you say perception there are five senses- hearing, seeing, touching, smelling and feeling. One should be able to create works that you can access through any of these senses. The perception of art in the past was mostly physical therefore something you access through the eyes mainly, but now the other senses are also being catered for. Art is something you access through those senses.

Much of your career as an artist has witnessed a lot of international exposure and patronage. What aspects of these engagements would you want to see reflected locally here in Nigeria or Africa generally?

El Anatsui, Bleeding Takari II, Aluminum (Bottle caps), 2007.

I think it is appreciation, Critical appreciation. Not looking at a work and saying “Ah it is fine!” but being able to analyze and say that there is this or that there, I don’t think this element goes well with this or that. Most times people think artworks are things you praise but that should not be the case. In other parts of the world where I have been, they can be critical assessment or reading of what the artist does. And that is necessary otherwise you will just do anything and it goes as art. And that is not good for the art profession and people will just think that these people are not serious. Anything they do is okay.

El Anatsui, Earth’s Skin, 2007, Aluminum and Copper Wire, 177×394 in.

For beginners, the issue of funding is sometimes a hindrance to their aspiration to widen their practice. What do you think about the issue of access to funding for artists?

I don’t know if what artists need is funding. I doubt. What they need is not funding because the first test of the artist is to create out of nothing. So, what is he looking for funds for? You are not looking for funds for anything. You create out of nothing and when your creation is recognized maybe you can generate your own funds. It is not trading whereby you say that yes, I need a shop or building. I have to pay rent for it or you need capital to start and so on. You don’t do that in art. You start with nothing. I don’t think Udechukwu or any other artist applied for or looked for funds. They are working with ideas and ideas are not things that require funds, you don’t get them with funds.

When people reach a certain level in their chosen career or life generally in terms of accomplishments, they start thinking of how to empower others for example in your case you might be thinking towards empowering younger artists or towards the development of art generally. Are you planning to have a foundation?

When I plan things, I don’t want to announce them ahead of time. I normally would want things to develop organically. Like saying I am about to set up a foundation, I don’t do such things, It could start gradually without my knowledge, Without my knowing it that there is something akin to what people call foundation. When you notice it, you decide how to grow it and to fine tune it.  I would not want to say I am planning a foundation or I am not planning a foundation. I am looking out to see how I can help in the betterment or appreciation of the profession to which I belong to let it have the kind of recognition that other professions have because still, people don’t quite give recognition to the artist. It is not only here it is there in other parts of the world like America and Europe. In America, for example, if there is any financial crunch, they go to their cultural sector and cut their funding. As artists, one is thinking about that too. Since you are now associated with or identified with the profession you want to let it have recognition.

El Anatsui, An Installation titled Ugwu at Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire, 2015.

Some words for younger artists who may be looking up to you and I think they are many of them.

They shouldn’t look up to me. As artists you don’t look up to other artists, you develop what you have in you. Chart your own path and move along with it. Art is not about money making. If the objective is to make money, then you are on the wrong path. You know just like people look at artists whose works are selling and they want to do the same thing to go and sell. You might make money but at the end of the day when art history is written your name cannot be there because your work is seen as a parody of somebody else’s. In other words, you did not have a voice.               

Agwu Enekwachi is a Sculptor, art teacher and Culture Journalist, he writes from Nsukka.


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