Denrele Ogunwa talks to a foremost African sculptor
EL ANATSUI is world acclaimed as one of Africa's foremost sculptors. His work, done mainly with
the chainsaw (and more recently with more power precision equipment), in organic mediums such as wood
and clay, has a unique potent and sometimes scathingly witt y voice.
Anatsui's work unfolds like an historic scroll, peering at the present through the windows of
the past. It is at once fresh yet duly informed by ancient wisdoms. His art encompasses all that is
truly African past, present and future...
Recently his solo exhibition, titled Sculptures and Reliefs, opened at the October Gallery,
West London.....And like his art, the man himself has a lot to say.
This is your first solo exhibition in London?
That's true, I've been taking part in group shows, but this is actually my first one-man
Why has it taken so long?
I think it has to be the fact that if you're an African artist based on the continent you suffer
from the invisibility syndrome, unless you have some 'godfather' or 'godmother'. But I have none of
these, so I had to let things take their natural course.
Are you saying that, no matter how good your art is, if you are based in Africa, you need
contacts down here to exhibit?
I'm not saying that. I am just happy that they have noticed. They are here and n one of them
actually goes out to know what's happening on the continent. So it is when our work is shown in group
shows that people get to know about it. If there were people coming to the continent, they would have
bumped into one and helped one come and show. I have lived all my life in Africa, even though I have
exhibited all over the world, that doesn't mean that I've actually been to those places.
What do you think of Africa '95?
I think it's a significant event. There are some concerns and flaws here and there, which are only
human. But like I said early on it is difficult for people to know what is happening in the arts scene
in Africa, without actually having been there.
Africa '95, like all other initiatives that start from here, suffers from that syndrome. The
festival is grand in scope, alright, and that is one of the challenges that it has, but they've
managed to put something together which is somehow representative.
Somehow because like all other shows, none of them can be truly representative no matter how well
they are planned.
If you had the chance to arrange something like this, how would you do it?
If I were to arrange something in the visual arts, I would have had graded shows. Since most of
Africa has not had much exposure in the west, it is possible that few artists throughout the ages have
been shown here.
If we exhibited by generations (I think we can talk about up to four or five generations of African
art) you can have five shows, each devoted to a separate generation, that w ould give people an idea
of what's going on. I think Whitechapel [the exhibition: Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa
, at Whitechapel gallery] in a way tried to do that. I would have also made sure that a lot of
information is gathered about what has happened in each place before I started selecting art
Your approach to art is rather unusual. You use the chainsaw, you scorch wood, in fact many
would say your work is positively violent. Why do you use such an unusual tool?
The chainsaw is a tool that I found useful for shaping. Sculpture is about shaping. Any media that
you can shape is a sculptural medium and any process with which I shape is a sculptural process. It's
just one of the many ways that you can sculpt. Each process has its own pecul iarities or
What kind of language is the chainsaw's?
Language of violence, of tearing, of clawing, of dividing. When you take a tool, you have to
understand its language, what it can do or say effectively. The things that the chainsaw can do or s
ay effectively is all those things I've just mentioned.
How do you work on a typical working day?
Most times I have to do a lot of thinking, decisions are really time-consuming. I'll often spend
about four out of six hours thinking about the artwork before I actually start cutting.
What do you think about?
At the back of my mind, I think about things concerning the conditions in my environment but
sometimes I simply let the medium or the process lead me on. These are the two approaches which, I
guess, all a rtists use; with one you attempt to impose your ideas onto the media, with the other the
medium leads you on.
Looking at some of your sculptures like, "Unfolding the Scroll of History" or
"The Ancestors Converged Again", one gets the feeling that most of your work seems to be
preoccupied with Africa's cultural history. Why is this?
If I seemed concerned with history, it is not that I want to relate history per se. I think I'm more
like trying to play around with the effects of that history or where that his tory is eventually
consigning the continent and its people to. Rather than recounting history, my art is telling about
what history has provoked.
One of your works that immediately catches the eye and makes you think is the "Visa
Queue". Not only does it make a witty commentary, but it also holds a deeper meaning. What is it
really all about?
When you think about "Visa Queue", its not only a spectacle, but the ideas that it could
provoke. Long ago, people were forced into migration through slavery, across t he Atlantic. Now, you
see, apparently, no one is forcing anyone but people still want to go there and you start wondering if
they are doing it on their own or maybe it's a disguised form of that enforced migration which started
so long ago. As Africans say : "there are so many ways to catch a rat", either you attract
it so that it comes of its own will or you put smoke in its hole, so that it will run out. I feel that
the latter is happening now. The process that was initiated long ago, has turned into somet hing like
smoking out rats because the incidents of transatlantic voyage and colonialism have set into motion a
lot of processes which have resulted in the place [Africa] not being very attractive.
You find that one cannot seriously or intrinsically relate to that environment since it has been
violated. So "Visa Queue" is not just that people are queuing for visas, but it is also
trying to explain why they are queuing for visas.
While we are on the topic of a violated Africa in which no one can live, several creative
artists have brought up the argument about how hard it is to create art in the atmosphere in Africa at
the moment. How hard has it been for you?
Art is something that is environment based. It takes its roots from a certain soil. For instance,
if you take a tree that thrives in the tropics and plant it in a temperate clime, it might not
survive. The same can apply to an artist. If what you derive y our nurture from is not much in the new
environment, you might find it difficult to create.
There are some artists who have relocated and have done as well as they were doing in their origins.
But it doesn't cut across the board. It might work well for others but not for some.
Do you think it would work for you?
If I moved from Africa to the west, then my orientation would have to change because you have to be
concerned with what is around you. Even the media that you work with might change. I work with old
mortars now, I can't find them here! I'd probably have to work with fibreglass or bronze or some ot
her synthetic media which I'm not attuned to. I don't think my temperament is attuned to it because
all along I've worked with media that are naturally found and organic like wood, clay etc. In Africa
we are a people of the earth. My people are people of t he earth and when I came to Nigeria I found
that the Igbo among whom I've lived are people of the earth too. We have Legba which is our
earth goddess and they also have Ala and I know that in Yorubaland also, there are people
who have a lot of attachment to the earth.
You've lived in Nigeria for 20 years but you are a Ghanaian, how have the two countries
influenced your art?
Most of my professional life I've been in Nigeria. I did only my training and about five years
teaching in Ghana. When I left Ghana, my plan was to spend three or four years in Nigeria and I ended
up spending 20 years.
I've maintained close contact with Ghana, it's just a 35 minute flight away. It is difficult to say
that "this is the Ghanaian influence" or "this is the Nigerian influence". Most of
the time, the two of them are acting together.
l For details of El Anatsui's solo exhibition at the October Gallery, see noticeboard.