The World Hails El Anatsui @ 80

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

They no longer make creative masters like the personable wonder simply called El Anatsui. El Anatsui came from Ghana to Nigeria and then conquered the world.
It is no mean feat for a self-effacing man who never courted the klieg lights of international celebrity to be named by Time magazine as one of the most influential people on earth in 2023.
Harvard University decorated El Anatsui with her coveted honorary doctorate degree in 2016, and the great man’s alma mater, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana, followed suite in 2017.

Born on February 4, 1944 in Anyako in the Volta Region of Ghana, El Anatsui was the last born of his father’s 32 children. He was brought up by his uncle after his mother died when he was quite young.

A prodigious child, he took to art by drawing letters on a chalkboard, and one of his early influences was the Ghanaian sculptor Vincent Akwete Kofi.

He left Ghana for Nigeria after his university studies and was employed at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1975.

He excelled as a leading member of the lionized “Nsukka School of Art” that revolutionized visual arts and sculpting.
El Anatsui carved a global niche for himself through his landmark work of what has been called “bottle-top installations.”

It’s his forte to assemble thousands of aluminium pieces sourced from alcohol recycling plants which he sews together with copper wires and transforms into metallic cloth-like wall sculptures. The astounding freedom and flexibility of the materials which ordinarily look sturdy and stiff are artistically manipulated when installing his sculptures.

From his Nsukka redoubt, El Anatsui surprised not a few connoisseurs of modern art by seizing the global space by the jugular.

He became a much sought-after master around the global art circuit such that in 1990 he stood out at the Studio Museum exhibition in Harlem, New York.

He gained further international traction in the breakthrough year of 1990 via the “Contemporary African Artists Changing Traditions” exhibition which was extended for five years.

El Anatsui is an evergreen global presence, exhibiting his works at the 8th Osaka Sculpture Triennale in 1995, the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona in 2001, the National Museum of African Art in 2001, the Liverpool Biennial in 2002, the Hayward Gallery in 2005, the Venice Biennale from 1990 to 2007, the Fowler Museum at UCLA in 2007, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC in 2008, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 2008 to 2009, the Rice University Art Gallery in Houston in 2010, the Clark Art Institute in 2011, the Brooklyn Museum in 2013 etc.

He has gone further afield to the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha in 2019 and the Kunstmuseum Bern in 2020. The art curator of the Venice Biennale, Robert Storr, describes El Anatsui’s series of works as reaching “back into a whole series of things in the post-war period – it has a kind of exaltation I have not seen before.”

There was the 2010 retrospective of his work entitled “When I Last Wrote To You About Africa” that was organized by the Museum for African Art at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. Akron Art Museum undertook the organization of the exhibition of his contemporary works entitled “Gravity & Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” that premiered at Brooklyn Museum, New York, in 2013.

As a mark of El Anatsui’s worldwide acclaim, record crowds attended an extensive presentation of his career offerings organized by Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu entitled “Triumphant Scale” that opened in March 2019 at Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany.

The esteemed Prince Claus Award was won by El Anatsui in 2009, the year he was also decorated with the Artist Honoree at the 30th Anniversary Celebration of the National Museum of African Art.

An Emeritus Professor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, El Anatsui richly deserves his universal acclaim as he celebrates his 80th birthday on February 4, 2024.

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