El Anatsui is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost contemporary artists. His works have been exhibited at major museums around the world. He commands attention and very good prices for his work. A piece from his ‘New World Map’ series sold for $850,544 in London. Prices for his other works fetch comparable prices and are projected to do even better. He is one of the most decorated artists from Africa. Yet, if you asked a million Ghanaians who El Anastui is, only a few, less than a dozen I reckon, would not draw a blank.
Born in Anyako, Volta Region
Anatsui was born in Anyako and trained at the College of Art, University of Science and Technology, in Kumasi. He left for Nigeria and began teaching at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1975 and has lived and worked in Nigeria since then. This has been highlighted as the reason he is not known in Ghana. Well, many famous artists did not live and work in their countries of birth. Definitely not all their lives. Picasso was born in Spain, moved between France and Spain and finally settled in Paris.
Significantly, El Anatsui’s Nigerian location has not affected his strong affinity with his Ghanaian roots. His preferred media are clay and wood, which he uses to create objects based on traditional Ghanaian beliefs and other subjects. He has cut wood with chainsaws and blackened it with acetylene torches; more recently, he has turned to installation art. Some of his works resemble woven cloths such as kente cloth. Anatsui also incorporates other symbolic imagery into his works alongside Ghanaian motifs and influences.
His tour de force for me is his extraordinary understanding of the generative powers of the environment and how they are transformed into creative motifs. The implications for the way we live our lives today are profound.
El Anatsui must be better known in the country of his birth, if not for the relevance of his creative insights for a country caught in an environmental crisis. It’s possible and I understand he now has a studio in Tema. Another good reason for my excitement is the announcement of a children’s biography about El Anatsui for 7-11-year-olds. A must-read also as a kind of “El Anastui for Beginners”.
A note from the publisher:
“If you touch something, you leave a charge on it and anybody else touching it connects with you, in a way.” — El Anatsui
El Anatsui has always written his own story. As an art student at the University of Ghana, El noticed that the artists and styles he was studying were grounded in European traditions. Curious about his own culture’s art history, El observed his people and found stories in the fabrics they wore and the way they used recycled goods. He decided to tell these stories through his artwork.
El experimented with different mediums—firing broken clay into new pots and cutting wood into sculptures using a chainsaw. Each time El tried something new, he brought with him the experience of all the experiments he did before. After coming across a discarded bag of shimmering bottle tops, El wondered What was their story? He experimented with the new material—disassembling, flattening, and reshaping—then stitched the tops together with wire. The result was large, flowing tapestries that tell stories about history, culture, and link people together. Today, El’s bottle top sculptures are showcased all over the world inspiring audiences everywhere.
Here is the captivating story of a Ghanaian sculptor whose passion, creativity, and awe-inspiring artwork reminds us that creating powerful art is about being true to yourself.
Publication date May 2022