Sep 18 2011: Gawu: A Very Short Interview with El Anatsui (Metro, 2005)

El Anatsui‘s Gawu was shown between 16 April and 5 June 2005, at the Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham, as part of Africa ’05. I spoke to him ahead of the opening.

Gawu is a word combining many allusions, Ga meaning metal, Wu a cloak. It’s a literal description of the elaborate works made by Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui from recycled bottle tops, cassava graters and food tins in the traditions of both kente cloth and abstract sculpture.

One such work now graces the entrance to the British Museum’s African galleries, and Anatsui has long been acknowledged as a leading figure in contemporary African art. It’s been a long wait for recognition elsewhere, but this is something that Anatsui – born in Ghana in 1944, and based in Nigeria since 1975 – sees as a long-standing problem for the continent’s artists.

Anatsui himself, despite acclaim at home since the late 1960s, received his first solo London show only when his work was selected for the Africa ’95 showcase and festival. A decade on, he’s one of the major attractions of its follow-up, Africa ’05, and despite the continuing relative neglect of much African art on the international circuit, Anatsui himself sees events like these beginning to improve things.

“Africa still has many artists being under-represented”, he notes, “but we are receiving more attention now. I remember when artists like myself were only ever shown in galleries that specialised in African work, but recently we are invited to exhibit where people who are not necessarily specialists go.”

He also acknowledges that his own approach has changed in the last decade. Where his older work used ceramic and wood, and emphasised local traditions and histories, his latest sculptures draw on recycled industrial and consumer materials, and their ideas, while still firmly rooted in locality and specific histories, mark something of a shift, in both thinking and technique, for the artist.

“One’s ideas change”, he says, “because if they don’t you are dead.  All artists work from their own experience and your locality is part of that. But local experiences are not peculiar, not limited to those who live in those localities: they are happening to people all over the world so that what is made from local experience in one place can touch others elsewhere too”.

In the past, Anatsui has also remarked that he would only use materials like wood, clay and ceramic that were found, natural and organic. The highly successful adoption and integration of material from industrial sources in more recent sculptures might seem like a major change. Instead, as Anatsui notes, it reveals a deeper continuity.

“The important thing for me about these recycled industrial materials, from sources like milk factories, is that they have all been used by human hands, something that takes away their industrial edge. This gives them a charge, like that I previously found in wood, which had usually also been put to human use before I worked with it. Materials, for me, must resonate”.

Given the rich seam of African history coded into previous works, where wooden panels and palm-mortars were burned, scarred and chain-sawed into shape, echoing the violence done to the continent itself by historical and colonial forces, it seems reasonable to see allusions to new situations in the sculptures of Gawu.

“I’m always trying to look behind the surfaces of the materials to find the history there”, he says, “but often I’m not conscious of all the connections at the time I make the piece. Although I was using bottle-tops and cans from breweries, it only struck me much later how great a part alcohol has played in our history, as one of the earliest tools of trade and colonisation”.

These new works also seem to balance these concerns against a more optimistic view. Where past works would be broken or burned into existence, those in Gawu are delicately constructed and – as Anatsui points out – “are made by adding rather than subtracting material”.

The finished works also have no fixed form, changing each time they’re shown. “I have always made things that can be folded or packed away, to help when transporting them”, Anatsui remarks. “But perhaps there is an unconscious optimism in that too. Perhaps these are less violent, more peaceful works than those I’ve made before”.


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