Thursday, 17 February 2011

El Anatsui, sculptor

On the 6th of February, 2011, I interviewed the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui at the Museum of Modern Art Hayama. He mainly makes wood scuptures of various kinds and large tapestries from bits of garbage, like bottle tops, aluminium foil, etc. The interview lasted around 17 minutes and was conducted as an "exhibition walk-through." Because of the need for visual reference, I recorded it on video.

CBL: It's running...Could you tell me a little bit about this? [indicating a large garbage tapestry called Gravity and Grace at the enttrance to the exhibition] Why have you chosen this work as the, eh, entrance piece?

EA: Oh yes, because it's about, the space where it best fits in, y'know it's very long, very tall. It could go horizontal or vertical but we decided to put it here because this is the kind of space it can best fit in.

CBL: Em, so this was… You made this obviously before the exhibition and you brought it over?

EA: Yeh.

CBL: I see. Um, how old is it? When did you make it?

EA: 2009, I think. Yeh.

CBL: Mh?

EA: 2009.

CBL: So, quite a recent work…

EA: No, 2010, I think.

CBL: Uhu. OK, let's go into the exhibition now.

[We enter the exhibition]

CBL: It's called Gravity and Grace?

EA: Yeh.

CBL: Any special meaning there?

EA: It's after, it's after the book entitled Gravity and Grace…I've forgotten the author, by, uh, a philosopher.

CBL: Well, I can always find out later, I'm sure. [Note: The book was written by the Jewish-French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil.]

EA: Yeh, yeh.

CBL: Now, em, is the exhibition chronological? Does it start with earlier works or is there…?

EA: In a sense, yeh, because these [mumbles]. I work in wood for some time, yeh, before going on to the metal and these are some of the wood pieces. I worked with the found wood and the wood from the sawmills, one of which is this one.

[He indicates One Kobo (1988)]

CBL: And this one here is a thumb?

EA: Yeh, like a thumb and [goes to the other side] here's all the fingers.

CBL: I see, so it's one big hand altogether?

EA: A big hand holding a coin.

CBL: I see, uhu, yeh, so the need for money...

EA: [laughs] Yeh, then I working with found wooden objects which had seen the human use.

[We approach Man With Offspring (1991)]

EA: It's one of them from the mortar, the longitudinal mortar that is used...[unclear].

CBL: This looks, em, very phallic.

EA: Yeh.

CBL: On purpose, yeh? That's your intention?

EA: Yeh, that's the intention. It's called Man and Offspring.

[Next we come to The Seers (1993/2000)]

CBL: I notice that here you use a lot of wood, you use a lot of, em, planks side by side, so with this one also, these are set side by side.

EA: Yeh, these are actually from old mortars that I split. Y'know if you put it together it'll form a round… Yeh. As you can see that’s the inside.

CBL: So, what was the mortar used for making?

EA: Eh, what?

CBL: What was the mortar used for?

EA: For pounding, for pounding all kinds of things, grains and some roots for eating, food and other thing…
[Next, looking at Currents (undated)]

CBL: Uhu, now with these works you used planks set side by side. Why don't you just use one large piece of wood? Why do you have to use lots of em, y'know, thin pieces set side by side?

EA: Yeh, but it gives the opportunity for easy packing and also they are independent. They could be rearranged.

CBL: Aha!

EA: Yeh, the whole idea, you can rearrange them. In the catalogue you'll see we tried to… I put numbers behind them.

CBL: Mmm.

EA: Yeh, we tried to arrange them according to the numbers, and after that we show another picture with the whole thing jumbled up.

CBL: Yeh?

EA: Yeh.

CBL: OK, that makes sense.

EA: And a good example of that in the catalogue is tell you what I mean, so the idea of having them in strips is you can expand, you can even rearrange and change, y'know, raise these, lower these, y’know…

CBL: So you can put them out of synch?

EA: Yeh.

CBL: and you can create more, well, sort of [visual] rhythms and melodies?

EA: So it gives more scope for playing around with it.

CBL: Yeh, easy to pack?

EA: Yeh.

CBL: Is it always vertical, never horizontal?

EA: Eh, they could be horizontal…[unclear]…oh you mean like this way

[moves fingers in horizontal fashion]

CBL: Yes, like that.

EA: It is more…It's easier to arrange because we have just one, er, stick on which we can lay…

CBL: I see, so there's a stick behind that?

EA: Yeh.

CBL: On which they’re all hanging?

EA: [garbled] you have stick for each.

CBL: OK, let me just get the stick.

[films the stick]

CBL: There's the stick. OK, that clarifies that. There's a reason for everything.

[move to On Their Fateful Journey Nowhere (1995)]

CBL: And these are, eh, these are some of the mortars?

EA: Yeh.

CBL: Why are mortars so important to you?

EA: Mortars are important to me because they…to me they represent, y'know, man or the human being.

CBL: In what way?

EA: In the sense that when they are new and young, they are put to a lot of uses, but when they are old and, uh, kinda broken they are discarded. Y'know, when I find them in the broken state and discarded I kind of raise them up to… I give them a new lease of life, yeh.

CBL: So this is like their retirement home for, uh, broken mortars? So you identify with the old mortars?

EA: Yeh.

CBL: More and more?

EA: More identify with things that have seen human use.

CBL: Yeh?

EA: And, uh, have been give a lot of touching and manipulation.

CBL: Uhu.

EA: Y'know I believe that when a human hand touches something it leaves a charge, it leaves an energy…

CBL: A spiritual energy?

EA: Yeh.

CBL: Not just a stain or fingers or stickiness?

EA: No. [laughs]

CBL: That also maybe.

EA: Yeh, that also.
[We are now in the next room, which is occupied by Waste Paper Bags (2004-2010)]

CBL: And these are just…

EA: These are from old printing plates.

CBL: Uhu.

EA: printing plates that I got from a printer in and around a village where I live in Nigeria. Initially I saw that a lot of them were about obituary, like, y’know, you can see...[unclear]...y'know because in my part of the World funerals are very public things.

CBL: Yeh?

EA: And they do a lot of publicity about them, y'know, therefore there is a lot of printing of funeral notices.

CBL: Yeh.

EA: Y'know…I…

CBL: These ones, these ones are funeral notices?

EA: Mostly.

CBL: But not everything?

EA: Not everything. Some are newspaper printing plates. Y'know, what I'm playing around with is the idea of ephemerality of life.

CBL: Yeh?

EA: Y'know because most of the lives that [unclear] are very short, maybe 50 years or 40 years, y'know.

CBL: And also it looks like newspaper even though it's metal. Yeh. It looks like newspaper, especially the way you've crumpled it makes it look more like paper.

EA: And paper too is very ephemeral.

CBL: Yeh.

EA: Yeh.

CBL: Like, the newspaper article which I write about you is probably very ephemeral.

EA: [laughs] One day news, One day literature...

CBL: Yeh, we say tomorrow's fish and chip paper.

EA: [laughs]

CBL: Now, you've made these into bags with handles.

EA: Yeh.

CBL: Why did you put the handles on?

EA: Wastepaper bag, they are the wastage of lives.

CBL: To make them look more papery, more ephemeral?

EA: Yeh.

[we come to the next room, which is decorated with several large tapestries made from garbage]

CBL: We're coming to the noisy part of the exhibition

EA: The fans blowing there.

CBL: Now I notice… The thing that strikes me as a professional art critic is the scale. You tend to work in this size with these kind of works, which are made from bottle tops or small silver strips or bits of tin. Em, why do you choose this scale?

EA: On the smaller scale they look very ineffectual.

CBL: Mm.

EA: Yeh.

CBL: Why is that?

EA: Eh, I don’t know. Because they are not very, um, precious items. Bottlecaps are… And also they are very light. They are made of aluminium, therefore very light, therefore give scope for want to on the large scale still be able to manipulate them.

CBL: Yes I guess also if you make on a smaller scale, you're still left with the original function.

EA: Yeh.

CBL: And by making it big like this the original function is lost.

EA: Yeh, yeh, it’s overpowered.

CBL: And it makes it more transcendent and more um sort of subsumed to something else.

EA: Yes….and they pack easily. Y'know, you fold them, they're very light, like you fold dresses.

CBL: Packing things easily seems to be very important to you.

EA: Eh?

CBL: Packing things easily seems to be very important to you.

EA: Yeh, because these days as artists your work needs to move around to all places and, ah, so packing is very crucial.

CBL: So, yeh, do you think your work – basically you recycle a lot of things – do you think one of the reasons your work has caught on is because it has this kind of ecological message?

EA: Mmm, yeh. I don't think that that is at the back of my mind but that's what I do. Anyway, it's a fact, but then my idea is to transform, y'know to give a new lease of life to this, uh, this kind of thing.

CBL: Yeh?

EA: Yeh.

CBL: That's very typical of African society in general isn't it? This need to use something and not just throw it away like we do in, em, more developed societies.

EA: Yeh, yeh, you recycle [laughs] you recycle and bring it back to the same use again.

CBL: Yeh.

EA: Yeh, but we send it to something else.

CBL: Yeh, so, so it becomes a different thing?

EA: Mhm.

CBL: Yeh, so can you think of some examples of that in African culture, where you recycle and you make something into something else?

EA: For example?

CBL: Yeh, what sort of things do you make into something else in African society when you recycle?

EA: Uh…

CBL: So, for example, if there's lots of old tin cans, what would somebody do with old tin cans?

EA: Well, tin cans can be used in making a, say, toys for children.

CBL: Mmm.

EA: In fact an African child will make his own toys.

CBL: Yeh?

EA: From tin cans and such things.

CBL: I once saw an exhibit I think at the British museum, and they got Kalashnikov machine guns and they were made into a chair. Do you know this work? [Note: This is Chair of the African King, by Goncalo Armando Mabunda.]

EA: Oh yeh, yeh, made in a Mozambique. I know about dat.

CBL: That was a classic case of, uh, recycling something, with a very strong message. Your message is more gentle than that, not so obvious, more artistic.

EA: [silent walking]

CBL: I feel your work is not so political. It's more aesthetic. It's driven by…

EA: I think I'm more, more of an aesthetic than a political artist.

[We are now looking at Gli (Wall) (2009)]

CBL: Now, here you've gone for a transparent effect.

EA: Yep, made out of the same bottlecaps, but then the rings, the rings that lock...[unclear]...that's what I intended to do.

CBL: Now, look…

EA: Playing around with the idea of transparency, the wall, the wall as more a transparent thing than something which blocks, because I believe that when you come across a wall, the tendency is for your imagination to spring beyond it, to start imagining what is on the other end, y'know.

CBL: Which is not a bad thing, is it? This [indicating Gli (Wall)] stops the imagination.

EA: This doesn't stop it…

CBL: Because you can see.

EA: …provokes it.

CBL: Aha. But I mean if you couldn't see, it would provoke it, but here you can see through so it doesn't ah…

EA: Ah, OK, it doesn't provoke it. [laughs]

CBL: So this is a kind of wall to the imagination, if you want to… But that sounds a bit negative. Uh, the other thing that really strikes people when they stand up close to your works is how many pieces go into making each one.

EA: Oh yeh, making each one. I...[unclear]...I think the whole thing has something to do with consumerism…

CBL: Yeh, but could I just...

EA: If you think that each of these [indicates bottle rings] represents a bottle of…hard drink...

CBL: Yeh.

EA: Then it gives you some idea of how many drink bottles are here.

CBL: So it gives you some notion of how much alcohol has been consumed.

EA: Yeh.

CBL: On a mass scale…Also, how do you make these? Do you… You must have people helping you cos these…

EA: I have, I have lots of, lots of assistants who...

CBL: Yeh.

EA: Numbering at times thirty or therabouts.

CBL: So, it's like a factory basically…in a way?

EA: Ehhh, not factory. Factory would be something the same thing. Yeh, but we do different things.

CBL: So it's like an artist's workshop but on a large scale?

EA: Yeh.

CBL: OK, right, good. I think that's lots of interesting material. So you have to go somewhere from now?

EA: Yeh.

CBL: I believe you're going to the other exhibition. [Note: This was the exhibition of Shindo Tsuji]

EA: The other museum.

CBL: Which I've just been to today.

EA: Oh, OK.

CBL: Yeh.

EA: The ceramic…

CBL: The ceramic... Wood sculpture also. So I think you'll find a lot of affinities with your own work.


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