El Anatsui: Playing with Chance
14 March–12 April 2014
Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos
9 McEwen Street
T +234 (0) 815580 7542
Over the past forty years El Anatsui has expanded the language of contemporary sculpture not only in Nigeria but also internationally. From the beginning of his career, he has sought to challenge the boundaries of artistic practice as well as overcome the constraints of material available to him locally. In so doing some of his earliest works started with amassing discarded wood to create the wall hanging trays characteristic of his first wood pieces. His move to Nigeria in 1970s led to a sustained period of work in clay resulting in critical acclaimed works such as the “Broken Pots” series. By the early 1980s, he returned to wood after a workshop in America and began his power-saw wood sculptures for which he became known and celebrated across Nigeria. In 1990, Grace Stanislaus, then curator at the Studio Museum Harlem, showed these sculptures for the first time internationally during the 44th Venice Biennale in the seminal exhibition Contemporary African Artists: Changing Tradition. However, the widespread international acclaim that Anatsui has received in the last decade have been reserved for his scintillating monumental bottle top sculptural hangings.
Over a forty-year period, Anatsui has used his work to engage with and comment on African history, colonialism, the post-colonial condition as well as the daily realities and experiences on the continent. As Nigerian artist and art historian Olu Oguibe states, “from the very beginning Anatsui’s art has focused on and found its core meaning in Africa: the continent, its people, its history and cultural heritage, its predicament.”(1) In addition he sought meaning and communication through African signs and symbols such as Adinkra as well in Uli and Nsibidi writing systems.
The Centre for contemporary Art, Lagos is pleased to present El Anatsui: Playing with Chance to mark the 70th birthday anniversary of one of Africa’s most acclaimed contemporary artists. The exhibition is shaped primarily through archival material in an attempt to present new insights into the making of his works as well as the development of his career. Through this presentation an array of disparate materials are brought together from his studio, his study and his library including sketchbooks, drawings, letters, exhibition planning and instruction documents, books he reads, books he features in as well as brochures and exhibition publications to which he has contributed especially of Nigerian artists. Also included are a few photographs taken during and just after his university education in Ghana, videos about him, fragments of the bottle top works ‘salvaged’ from his studio, his chainsaw wood sculptures and his early tray hangings and even a selection of his payslips from the University of Nigeria over a 36-year period. El Anatsui was a consummate teacher who made an indelible mark on his students, many of whom are now enjoying increasing national and internationally visibility. His concerted efforts in encouraging the visibility of female artists is highlighted by inviting three of his former students Nnenna Okore, Lucy Azubuike and Amarachi Okafor to participate in the exhibition.
El Anatsui was born on the 4th of February 1944 in Ghana. Since 1975 he has lived and worked as an artist and lecturer in Nigeria, based at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Since retirement in 2011 from the University, he lives between Ghana and Nigeria. Anatsui has taken part in over 100 solo and groups exhibitions, several biennales and triennales in Nigeria, across Africa and internationally. Over the last decade he has been the subject of important solo exhibitions including Gawu, which toured in the UK and USA from 2003 to 2008 and the extensive retrospective When I last spoke to you about Africa, organised by the Museum for African Art, New York which toured to several institution in the USA and Canada from 2010 to 2012. Anatsui’s work is to be found in prestigious private and public collections locally and around the world.
El Anatsui: Playing with Chance acknowledges his spirit of experimentation and his creativity, and celebrates a dedicated teacher, a committed mentor, a sincere person, a generous man and a quiet leader. In her contribution to his exhibition catalogue A fateful Journey: Africa in the Works of El Anatsui, that toured in Japan from 2010 2011, CCA, Lagos director Bisi Silva asserts, “He has engaged profoundly with his cultural, political and social history. He has imbued the spirituality of his forefathers. In the final analysis Anatsui stands tall before the ancestors.”
El Anatsui:Playing with Chance is curated by Bisi Silva and assistant curator Taiye Idahor.
(1) Olu Oguibe, “El Anatsui: The Early Work” in El Anatsui: When I last wrote to you about Africa, Museum for African Art, New York 2010, pg 23.