El Anatsui, world-renowned contemporary artist and the man behind the recent retrospective El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa at the DAM, gives off a quiet presence. When I first met him in the gallery, he smiled, said hello, and that was about it. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from his Logan Lecture on September 5. I—and I think the entire audience—soon was blown away by his storytelling and enraptured in the thought and meaning behind each artwork. Below are a few key quotes (and some context) that I jotted down from the evening.
El Anatsui does not tell museums or curators how to install his artworks. This is pretty rare as most artworks come with detailed instructions on how they should look. Here is what he had to say.
“Art is a reflection on life. Life isn’t something we can cut and fix. It’s always in a state of flux.”
But Lisa Binder, exhibition curator and curator of contemporary art at the Museum for African Art had a different story.
“As a curator that sounds amazing but it is actually terrifying to have no direction on how to install,” she said. “You’re simultaneously grateful to El and ungrateful.”
Using Local Materials
Throughout his 40-year career, El always has used materials that are readily available. For example, he gets the liquor bottle caps for his recent woven metal sculptures from a local distillery in Nigeria.
“Media which come with history, meaning, with something mean something to me. Not just oil paint from a tube. I can’t relate to that well. I would rather go for something people have used. Then there is a link between me and the other people who have touched that piece.”
Bottle Top Weavings
El shot to international fame after he draped an entire building in a woven-metal wall sculpture. These recent works are made from thousands of liquor bottle tops.
“All lids are from used bottles,” explained El. “Each represents a bottle of liquor consumed.”
Lisa pointed out that El often uses humble items that as a single item, are quite small, but when you put them all together, they become monumental.
“As individual pieces, they are not linked,” explained El. “But when linked together they become powerful.”
For his most recent artworks, El doesn’t create sketches; he simply sits back and thinks about the pattern.
“Drawings make you a slave to them. You forget that the instruction actually came from you.”
Notorious for his dislike of titling his works, El commented on this tradition.
“I don’t know if a title is meaning.”
“I write short poems for titles sometimes. Sometimes they flow forth and sometimes they don’t come at all.”
A High Five for the DAM Team
At the end of the night, El commented on his artwork Peak Project, which uses dozens of sheets of Peak brand milk lids.
“They installed it with double and triple volume. It was a brilliant way of installing.”
Bravo, DAM team!
Image credit: El Anatsui speaks near his artwork Stressed World at the El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa media preview at the DAM on September 6.