Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s Golden Lion turns spotlight on Africa

Ghanaian artist El Anatsui takes home this year’s Venice Biennale Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. 

The jury bestowed Anatsui with one of the top accolades in the art world, praising him for his artistic vision and for asserting the place of African art and culture on the international stage. 

El Anatsui, 'AG + BA' (detail), 2014, aluminium, copper wire and nylon string, dimensions variable. Photo by Jonathan Greet. Image  courtesy the artist and October Gallery London.

El Anatsui, ‘AG + BA’ (detail), 2014, aluminium, copper wire and nylon string, dimensions variable. Photo by Jonathan Greet. Image courtesy the artist and October Gallery London.

El Anatsui (b. 1944, Anyako, Ghana) was named last week as the winner of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 56th Venice Biennale. The Nigeria-based artist will receive the award on 9 May 2015 during the inauguration of the biennale.

A lifetime of achievement

The decision concerning one of the highest honours in the art world was made by the biennale’s Board of Directors upon the recommendation of Okwui Enwezor, curator of the biennale. Anatsui was declared as “perhaps the most significant living African artist working on the continent today”. According to the biennale’s press release, the award is

a worthy recognition of the originality of Anatsui’s artistic vision, his long-term commitment to formal innovation, and his assertion through his work of the place of Africa’s artistic and cultural traditions in international contemporary art.

El Anatsui, 'Strained Roots', 2014, aluminum and copper wire, dimensions variable. Photo by Jonathan Greet. Image courtesy the artist and October Gallery London.

El Anatsui, ‘Strained Roots’, 2014, aluminum and copper wire, dimensions variable. Photo by Jonathan Greet. Image courtesy the artist and October Gallery London.

A shimmering African aesthetic

The artist’s loyalty to Africa is demonstrated by his commitment to visual languages with African sources. His art utilises materials found in his local environment – for example, according to an interview, Anatsui’s signature tapestries are woven from flattened bottle tops he stumbled across while on a walk.

These dynamic, monumental creations shimmer with a mesmerising luminosity and life force, the effect of which is understated and breathtaking at the same time. Changing form each time they are hung or draped differently, the works almost seem alive. Anatsui explains in the same interview:

[…] when humans touch something, they leave a charge […] They leave an energy on it, and that energy goes along with it. […] In things made by machine, you won’t see the energy there. But these ones have it.

El Anatsui, 'Timespace' (Detail), 2014, aluminium and copper wire, 325 x 495 cm. Photo by Jonathan Greet. Image courtesy the artist and October Gallery London.

El Anatsui, ‘Timespace’ (detail), 2014, aluminium and copper wire, 325 x 495 cm. Photo by Jonathan Greet. Image courtesy the artist and October Gallery London.

A dedicated teacher and mentor

Having graduated from the sculpture programme in the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Anatsui moved to Nigeria in 1975 where he began to both make and teach art. In addition to his achievements as an artist, the Golden Lion acknowledges his

artistic influence amongst two generations of artists working in West Africa [and] the sustained, crucial work he has done as an artist, mentor and teacher for the past forty-five years.

Anatsui’s studio manager Onyishi Uchechukwu was also once his student. Uchechukwu recalls his time as an undergraduate working with the artist:

I started working with him as an undergraduate student, and El advised us to use cheap mediums – because when you are using cheap mediums you are freer, unlike when you use material that is expensive like gold, it tends to restrict the size of the work and you tend to economise. But when you use [a] cheap medium, […] you express yourself better, and the size of the work will sometimes become intimidating.

El Anatsui (Ghanaian, b.1945-),In the World, But don’t know the World? Aluminium and copper wire, 1000 x 560 cm. Image from www.artnet.com. Artwork presented in Art Dubai Fair, 2010

El Anatsui, ‘In the World, But Don’t Know the World?’, 2009, aluminium and copper wire, 1000 x 560 cm. Image from www.artnet.com. Artwork presented in Art Dubai Fair, 2010.

Spotlight on Africa

Anatsui’s Golden Lion turns the spotlight squarely on Africa in the advent of a biennale curated by Nigerian Onkwui Enwezor, the first African-born curator in the biennale’s history.

Two years ago, in the 55th edition of the biennale in 2013, first-time exhibitor Angola was awarded the Golden Lion for the best national pavilion – a fact that signified African art’s increasingly strong presence in the contemporary art world.

This year’s Kenyan pavilion, however, will be under scrutiny for entirely different reasons. Following protests over an overwhelmingly non-Kenyan roster, the Kenyan government officially denounced the pavilion’s predominantly Chinese line-up last Friday.

 

Click here to follow Art Radar’s coverage of the 56th Venice Biennale.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: African artists, mixed media, found objects, awards, biennales

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