Take a look at what we created with trash
In the space of three weeks, Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui has been awarded two honorary doctorates.
After joining Hollywood film director Steven Spielberg as an honoured alumnus at Harvard University in the US on May 26, he was again honoured on Friday at a graduation ceremony held at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
The notoriously private Anatsui spoke to City Press exclusively this week about his first time in South Africa and on life as the continent’s most famous artist.
“I got to know South Africa long ago as a kid through music,” he said. “Radio Ghana used to have a programme called Way Down South that played South African music for 30 minutes every Saturday, which I was addicted to. So I grew up knowing names like Dorothy Masuka, Kippie Moeketsi, Little Lemmy and Big Joe, Mahotella Queens, Jazz Epistles, Miriam Makeba and, of course, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim, whose careers I follow closely.”
In Nigeria, where Anatsui has been based for most of his professional career, up to 40 young people assist at any given time in his studio to craft his signature sculptural works, made from recycled liquor bottle tops and copper wire. When the thousands of pieces are connected together, they create a shimmering textile that can sometimes stretch for 16m, and have been hung at every major museum in the world, from the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, to the Vatican Museums in Rome.
“The idea that is behind all of my work is to find a sculptural form which is free, which is mutable and variable, and I found it in the bottle-cap pieces. I got tired of statues of ‘knights on horses’ in bronze or on the walls of museums, which have been the fare for centuries, especially in Western art. I thought that if art is regarded as life, it should reflect the dynamic and constantly changing nature of it, and not freeze just a moment of it. I want my art forms to replicate that kind of quality.”
His art, in the way it transforms the waste of Western products such as tin cans into multimillion-dollar works of art, is often hailed by African critics for its political messaging, a sort of decolonising project.
“I believe that human beings, given absolute freedom to roam their imagination, will tend to go back to servitude and comfort of the known,” he says.
“They’re not used to facing new situations. That is what I have discovered from the kind of work I do.”
The 72-year-old fondly remembers his own graduation in 1969 from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, but thinks that the event itself could do with some updating.
“I think graduation ceremonies need to be simpler and more attuned for sober reflection. There is too much razzmatazz to it. I would’ve preferred something more subtle and spiritual. That is a time that graduates are supposed to start thinking about the debt they owe to mankind as people who have received some enlightenment.”
While nothing official had been decided yet, Anatsui said, there could be a South African exhibition on the cards in the near future.
An installation of large-scale ‘tapestries’ and other sculptural forms made of discarded materials, mostly metal
A woman looks at a sculpture by El Anatsui ALL THAT GLISTENS A visitor admires El Anatsui’s works of art during the press preview for Art Basel at Basel Messe in Switzerland this week
A sculpture made of bottle tops, by El Anatsui, at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in the US