By JAPHET ALAKAM
The Centre for Contemporary Art, (CCA), Yaba was always beehive of activities because of what the centre offers to the art community, but last Friday was a different ball game as people from all works of life, art collectors, patrons, artists, students, alumni of the University of Nigeria, Fine and Applied Art department and art lovers gathered at the centre during the opening ceremony of a special exhibition to celebrate, a teacher, sculptor and one described as one of the most exciting contemporary visual artists from Africa, El Anatsui and his monumental works as he turned 70.
The exhibition which is CCA Lagos’s unique way of marking the artist’s 70th birthday tagged Playing With Chance opened on March 14 and will run to April 12, 2014. The exhibition was full of memorabilia, and a lot of art-related personal effects of El Anatsui old pencil and ink drawings, exhibition catalogues, a selection of Art books, sales receipts etc. A preview of the contents as displayed during the opening suggests that CCA has actually lifted the artist’s studio from Nsukka to Lagos.
The Ghanaian born sculptor who has spent much of his career in Nigeria emerged from the vibrant post-independence art movements of 1960s and ’70s West Africa, has gone on to receive widespread international acclaim for his sculptural experiments with media, form and tradition.
Throughout a distinguished forty-year career as both sculptor and teacher – as Professor of Sculpture and Departmental Head at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka – El Anatsui has addressed a vast range of social, political and historical concerns, and embraced an equally diverse range of media and processes.
According to Bisi Silva, the curator, “the exhibition is shaped primarily through archival material in an attempt to present an alternative insight into the work and career of the artists.” The exhibition is not the normal exhibition of works of the artists, rather it is an attempt to present an alternative insight into the work and career of the artists.
A visit to the exhibition hall at the centre shows that the entire hall was filled with some of materials brought together from his studio, his study and his library, they includes sketchbooks, drawings, letters, key exhibition planning and instruction documents, books he reads and those he did not read, video, slide images, drawings, sketches, photographs, writings, documents as well as his art. \
Of particular note was El Anatsui’s collection of reproductions of Uche Okeke’s 1958 drawings. They looked like sketches Anatsui could have made for his wall hangings. His work also had strong echoes of the kente textiles of his native country Ghana. He had investigated his roots deeply, and had chosen a technique unique to his origins.
An understanding of the evolution of the man’s work would fill anyone going through the show with awe, and reverence The presentation of these archival material which many are seeing for the very first time gives an insight into the thinking and working process of one of Africa’s most
important contemporary artist.
As a consummate teacher who made an indelible mark on his students, many of whom are now enjoying increasing national and internationally visibility especially women, the exhibition also featured some of the works of his three former female students like Nnenna Okore, Lucy Azubuike and Amarachi Okafor.
The hall was like a tourist place as people moved from one side to the other looking at some of the things that made the man, especially his works and that of his students. Looking at the exhibits, one couldn’t understand where , how he started and what has kept him going, but the man simply said is consistence.
El Anatsui is an internationally acclaimed artist who transforms simple materials into complex assemblages that create distinctive visual impact. He uses resources typically discarded such as liquor bottle caps and cassava graters to create sculpture that defies categorization. His use of these materials reflects his interest in reuse, transformation, and an intrinsic desire to connect to his continent while transcending the limitations of place.
His work can interrogate the history of colonialism, and draw connections between consumption, waste, and the environment, but at the core is his unique formal language that distinguishes his practice. Making use of tools as diverse as chainsaws, welding torches and power tools as well as developing a range of processes such as the intricate and meditative ‘sewing’ process of his later work, he has shaped found materials that range from cassava graters, railway sleepers, driftwood, iron nails and obituary printing plates, aluminium bottle-tops, etc. to create a wide variety of novel sculptural forms.
His sculptures have been collected by major international museums, including the British Museum, London, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the de Young Museum, San Francisco, the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, the museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, and many other prestigious institutions besides.