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Interview with El Anatsui

Curator Alisa LaGamma talks to artist El Anatsui about his work, including the sculpture Between Earth and Heaven, which was recently installed in the African art galleries.


Alisa LaGamma: Hello, this is Alisa LaGamma and I'm the curator of African art here at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I'm with El Anatsui, who's visiting us from Nigeria this week. It's the week that he has opened a major exhibition of his work and it's the day that he's just installed a wonderful piece in the Museum's collection that we acquired in 2006.

The title of this work that you created in 2006 is Between Heaven and Earth. Can you explain a little bit how you selected this particular title for the work that's on view here?

El Anatsui: The fact that is this, we live in many dimensions of the world: the physical one—solid earth and with bone and skin—and then the cyberworld, which is intangible. I think most of the time we are caught in between the two of them, we are left in some abeyance. We are left between heaven, which I think the cyberworld, you know, the nearest description of, and earth. And in kind of trying to get at this title, I looked at the elements that I used in the work and saw that a proportion of elements which were open, you could see through them.

Alisa LaGamma: They were transparent.

El Anatsui: You know, they were more transparent than the lower one—which is the lower section, which is dense, you know. That's the physical and then the ethereal.

Alisa LaGamma: One of the things that strikes me when I look at your work and when I hear other people talk about it is how astonished they are by the beauty of the work. Everyone that I've heard react to your sculpture of the last few years says how aesthetically beautiful they find it. In the contemporary art world, it's very rare that an artist creates things that have this dimension of beauty in them. How do you feel being an artist who is creating works that have that effect? Is it unintentional?

El Anatsui: No, it's not unintentional. I think I always combine content and form in my work, and therefore you can't run away from the works looking beautiful. But then they don't end at beauty only, you know, they have contents. And the content can be gleaned by getting closer and seeing what the work is made of and trying to get some ideas out of what those materials would mean. And—like drink bottle tops, you know, liquid bottle tops, they could come with some names which could be telltale or have some ring about them, and there have been times that we sat down to list the number of titles, or names of drinks that whose tops we've used. And they are a lot more, ringing like a sociological study, or a historical study, or a political study of our environment. So that when people, well, who are careful, or more probing, get close, they can get all this beyond the beauty.

Alisa LaGamma: It seems to me that your work is very much in step with concerns that all of us are feeling for the way that we're creating waste that is crowding our living environment, and that you're creating works that take that waste and transform them into something not only thought-provoking but beautiful. Can you explain a little bit the process whereby you look for interesting materials to work with as a sculptor?

El Anatsui: I think for a long—well, since I left art school, I've been an artist who has been given to searching my environment, you know, for material to work with and I want it to be material that relates to the people, you know, to people, not something that is distant from them. Let me give an example. If, for instance, I worked with bronze, it's distant. People, they don’t relate to it. But if I pick a Coca-Cola can—everybody knows what a Coca-Cola can is and can relate to it.

As an artist, I think that I should work with processes and media that are immediately around me. And in Africa, just like everywhere in the world—like yester night, we went on a little walk and saw the huge quantities of waste that people brought out and put on the street for the trucks to come and collect. And I thought, "We create . . . we create waste." But I think there's more waste created in other parts than we do, you know. And as an artist, I think—have always even advised to my students to work with materials that you don't have to spend anything to—where they have the freedom to play around. You know, most of the times, art has a huge element of play, has a huge level of play in it. And you can't play with something which is expensive.

Alisa LaGamma: Could you describe a little bit what some of the great forms of classical African art that have been meaningful to you are, that have inspired you in your own work? I assume that you have looked a lot at textiles and how important a place they have in sub-Saharan Africa.

El Anatsui: Yeah, not only textiles but sculptural forms. Yeah, I am basically a sculptor. And textile seems to be coming in because of this format that I use now, which is the sheet format. And therefore the closest thing that people associate them with is textile. But actually should be looked at more as sculpture. I do look at works of sculpture and textile, and everything from all over the place. And they do, I am sure, influence me. You know, but most of the time it's a very unconscious thing.

Alisa LaGamma: I read once that you said that as an art student in Ghana that you paid special attention to observing traditional weavers and carvers and casters and that you had great respect for the processes that they work with and were very engaged with responding to those traditions.

El Anatsui: Yeah. In school, I think that what we were exposed to was more like—my school was affiliated to an art school in England. And faculty largely from outside of Africa, and a few African members of the faculty were there. And the result was that, toward the end of our course, for instance, some of us began to think or to see that there was something missing, you know. The local component wasn't much there in what we were exposed to. And that led me to—luckily, the National Cultural Center of Ghana is in the town where the university was, that's Kumasi. And I used to go there to sit down and watch all these carvers and textile artists, drummers and all kinds of musicians, and that was where I got influence from, of, or got an attraction for, to, the arts and crafts sides. Which were attractive to me on account of the fact that they were handling very abstract concepts. And I thought that was very interesting, you know. And these were very intriguing to me and therefore I spent some time—many years, about four or five years—trying to replicate the motions of artists who created these forms or signs. In order to have a feel of what it was like the—and I went, kind of trying to kind of indigenize or add a little bit of a local component to what I'd been exposed to in school, in order to become a more rounded artist.

Alisa LaGamma: Now, very soon after you finished art school, you left Ghana and you went to work in Nigeria, and you've been working there ever since. And I wonder if leaving the place where you studied and you grew up wasn't an important part of being a very inventive artist, being able to break away from—

El Anatsui: Yeah, I think it might be through that leaving one's—well, the environment that you grew up in, yeah, could be a very good catalyst in the sense that when you are away from a place, you know, you have a more intense feeling of it. And in the sense, also, that you are exposed to new stimuli, so you are combining what you left, which is now intense, with new stimuli. And I think that was—that's what has happened in my case.

Alisa LaGamma: Thank you very much, El, for joining us today. It was really quite an extraordinary morning and we hope that people will take a lot of pleasure out of seeing your magnificent work on view in our galleries.

El Anatsui: Thank you.

Alisa LaGamma: This has been an Antenna Audio production.

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