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Nigerian sculptor El Anatsui knows too well that when most people think of African art, they think of masks, something he would never ask his students to make.
"We don't even make masks in schools," he says.
Anatsui taught art for nearly 30 years in a remote Nigerian village before getting his first big break when his sculpture was shown at the 1990 Venice Biennale. His works consist of giant sheets of colorful metal that are so big he often doesn't even assemble them himself. Twelve of them are touring the U.S. through August 2014.
'Waking Up' Everyone's Inner Artist
According to Anatsui, contemporary African art has the same purpose as contemporary art everywhere — to make viewers look and think.
"In Africa, we do art for contemplation only," he says. "There is music that you don't dance to; you listen to it. There are people who appreciate the art for its own sake."
Still, he confesses to his own prejudice at the start of his career when it came to what sculpture could be made of.
"My stereotype of Western art was bronze or marble," he says. "It was later on that [I was] introduced to some African sculptures that used things like wood, feathers, leather and fabric."
In his own art, Anatsui uses hundreds of thousands of discarded whiskey, gin and rum bottle screw-tops that he finds, too easily, in mounds of detritus near his village. He sees rampant consumerism and waste in them, but he also says liquor is a legacy of colonialism and slavery: "It came with the Europeans when they first came to Africa to trade, initially, for other goods like gold. But eventually it was traded for people as well."
That dark story may not be obvious when you look at his huge, multi-colored, highly-textured, shimmering sheets. They are assembled by assistants who crush, crumple, twist and flatten the tiny bits of metal and thread them together. The artist then gives museum staff license to configure the work by bending, twisting, draping and shaping the flat sheets into forms when they hang the sculptures.
Ellen Rudolph curated the Anatsui show that ran at the Akron Art Museum in Ohio last year. She says she found the responsibility of deciding what the 12 sculptures should look like overwhelming at first: "How am I going to just have some kind of vision for what form it should take? How can I impose that on someone else's art? And then once we got the work here and unfolded it on the floor — because it arrives folded up like a blanket — we had to play with it and get a sense of how it moves and how it lays. And that's when we started to really understand that we could form and sculpt the work and it was incredibly exciting. It's an amazing gift that El gives the people who work on his installations."
One of those people was Joe Walton, the museum's chief preparator. He says one work, called Gli, posed a particular challenge: It came in four giant sections.
"Three of those pieces actually hang from the ceiling," he says. "That's all custom-fabricated hanging hardware to support the piece ... so that it's suspended in the space. Some of the pieces we're dealing with are 12 feet high by 36 feet long, so there's special pulley-system rigging hardware that we're going to use to get them up on the wall safely. But this is probably one of the funnest installs we've had to work on."
The artist also gets something out of the collaboration. He says, "I think that the thing that I enjoy about giving people tasks to do with these works is that you go and see that they have even better ideas than you yourself, you know, and that's very uplifting."
Anatsui says he feels he also owes it to those who assemble, install and see his work to help awaken their creativity. "Every one of us has an artist in us," he says. "Really, some may be asleep and some are fully awake, you know. So I think I have a kind of commitment to waking up some people in whom it is asleep. Teaching — my work is still teaching."
Part Of The Larger, Contemporary Art Dialogue
According to Ellen Rudolph, the Akron Art Museum was the first U.S. institution of its kind to buy an Anatsui work.
"We purchased it at a time when many other museums were still looking at this artist as an African artist whose work belonged in the context of African collections," she says. "And we were looking at his work as something to add to the larger, contemporary art dialogue."
Most of the metal sculptures and tapestries in the Anatsui exhibition have never before been seen in the U.S., and they'll be seen differently in each city the tour takes them to.
The sculptures goon display at the Des Moines Arts Center in October.