El Anatsui: From the Garbage Bins of Nsukka to International Museums

El Anatsui, Peak Project, 1999.
photo : permission | courtesy October Gallery, London, UK

From Naples to the African Continent: Waste, an Economical and Political Issue

Naples has been collapsing under mountains of detritus for several months now,1 1 - As the paroxysms of a crisis mired in quicksand for the last fourteen years, thousands of tons of garbage accumulated in the regions of Naples in the last few months, provoking the anger of the riverside residents and a state of sanitary emergency. Colossal budgets were squandered in vain in an attempt to regulate a situation that had been poisoned by fraudulent politicians and by the hand of the camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, which took hold of this lucrative market. and this proliferation strangely recalls the reality of other continents and epochs. This event undeniably highlights, at the core of Europe, the complexity of an environmental issue dependent upon ­economic as well as political interests and about which, given our ­immersion in simplistic and virtuous discourses, we have a tendency to forget. Certain environmentalist spokespeople denounce our naïve perspective: “While attributing culpability to citizens and in proposing a facile expiation of their sins by means of small, individual gestures, we forget to explain to them that a good number of the public policies to which we subscribe are anti-ecological…. Ecology is not only a false pretext; it has also become a publicity campaign, as deceitful as it is ­convincing. Ecology finds itself used for marketing ends to justify the most detrimental procedures to the planet.”2 2 - Jean-Louis Roumégas and Anne Souyris, “La semaine de l’écoblanchiment,” in Libération, Tuesday, 8 April 2008.

As unexploited remains, waste has become the object of ­lucrative, more or less honest transactions contracted at an international scale. If the situation in Naples can call to mind the open dumping that fouls the vicinities of African cities and villages, it is not by means of a simple formal association. The relation between the two continents was woven using the threads of Africa’s tragic history as the “dumping ground of Europe”3 3 - François Roelants du Vivier, Les vaisseaux du poison (Paris: Sang de la Terre [Les Dossiers de l’Écologie], 1988). and the traffic of garbage.4 4 - From the 1980s to this day, countless scandals have been denounced. Recently, the Panamanian ship Probo Koala (August 2006), chartered by a Dutch company, seriously polluted with its toxic refuse several public dumping sites in Abidjan (in contempt of the Basel convention). Today, used consumer goods (cars, tires, or ­electronic garbage) are more likely to arrive in Africa, usually under the guise of their reuse.

Faced with such crises, individual good intentions and the ­proximity solution abundantly defended in occidental discourses seem cruelly ­demagogical. Nonetheless, in Africa a fringe of the population has turned recycling into a normal part of living not only because garbage forms a part of daily life, but also as a consequence of its destitution, which invites it to seek out parallel forms of ­consumption. Evidently, ­politically correct ­discourse, conversant in a stereotypical ­representation of the continent, has not failed to draw substance from this reality—and it has found ­countless echoes in contemporary art. It takes little effort to see ­looming on the horizon both a naive ­valorization of recycling as well as the ­primitive (or romantic) image of the clever “noble savage.” 

In light of this preamble we have chosen to study, conjointly, the issues of garbage and that of contemporary African art5 5 - Not without irony, we note that the exhibition Africa Remix (2005) counted Total among its sponsors—a company implicated in the black tide caused by the sinking of the Erika in 1999. in the work of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. Far from perpetuating the “exotic” vision condemned above, which, when applied to artistic creation, would make waste a trait inherent in African art, the work of Anatsui undermines it. It is therefore from a critical perspective that this interconnected approach will address not only the aesthetic dimension of his work, but also its links to the international scene, which determine both the waste (in the manner in which it is presented) and the label “African artist.”6 6 - In view of contemporary African art as an aesthetic, normative, and critical ­category and as the history of the recognition of new artists on the international scene, I invite the reader to consider issue 3 of Art 21, July-August 2005.

Waste: Between Occidental Modern Art and Contemporary African Art

Although the idea of recuperation and recycling has corresponded to the image of African art, the continent does not hold a monopoly. When ­modern western art began appropriating waste at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was mostly for its aesthetic and ­conceptual ­properties. Conversely, contemporary art, all the more African, ­eminently inscribes itself in a critical and political procedure. Recovered, kept in their crude state, transformed, or photographed, food packaging, plastics, clothes, rags, papers, cartons, scrap iron, dolls, manufactured objects, and ­secretions—the whole panoply of waste has become an inexhaustible reserve for artists willing to make use of all the resources available to them. This has not been without consequences: the use of refuse has destabilized the nature of the artwork and what it means to be an artist. A work that attaches itself to the world’s banality and ­triviality ceases to be considered as a unique, autonomous form created out of nothing by an inspired genius. 

From Kurt Schwitters to Wim Delvoye, not to mention Arte Povera or New Realism, artists’ use of waste—society, the body, or the mind’s refuse—has called forth the most varied registers: ontological (is it art?), aesthetic (is it beautiful?), moral (the pure and the impure), hygienic (the clean and the filthy), economic (what value can it have?), and political (can art commit itself to ecology?).

More interventionist than their predecessors, current artists champion concrete actions (in ecological design, for instance) by getting involved in existing networks and structures. Nicolas Bourriaud has ­analyzed this kind of practice in his writings on “relational aesthetics” and “­postproduction.”7 7 - Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 1998, trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods with the participation of Mathieu Copeland (Dijon, France: Les presses du réel, 2002); Postproduction, trans. Jeanine Herman (New York, Sternberg Press, 2002). In a time of globalization, garbage continues to open up sites for experimentation. Anatsui’s use of refuse truly sets in motion an artistic process and a shape, articulated in the cultural, political, and social contexts of Africa. It is the integration of these different heritages that anchors the polysemic richness of his work.

El Anatsui, Sasa, 2004.
photo : Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris, permission | courtesy October Gallery, London, UK

Waste as Raw Material for El Anatsui

“Art grows out of each particular situation and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up.”8 8 - El Anatsui, “An Interview with El Anatsui,” by Gerard Houghton, in El Anatsui Gawu (Llandudno: Oriel Mostyn Gallery, 2003). This maxim aptly defines the artist who has employed found objects as his raw material rather than newly manufactured items. As one who gleans, Anatsui recuperates, collects, and transforms the waste that he finds within his reach: dead wood (Akua’s Surviving Children, 1996), caps and bottles (Sasa, 2004), used food packaging (Crumbling Wall, 2000), and metal plates (Wastepaper Bag, 2003). He does not make a virtue of necessity. Instead, Anatsui establishes recuperation as the fulcrum of his creative process because waste offers itself to him charged with the circumstances that have made it available.

In addition, this material carries within it the memory traces of daily life and of social practices. In Nigeria, where the artist lives and works, abandoned children from Lagos are sadly familiar with this type of ­collection. They gather objects in garbage dumps (reputedly the ­largest dumping ground of electronic components) to resell them and ensure their own survival. While Lagos is also known for the opulence of its elite class which, enriched by the petroleum trade, exhibited its luxury cars in the 1970s, its waste explicitly reflects both the consumerist attitudes of the population and its propensity towards recycling the Other.  

As it turns out, most of the materials used by Anatsui have a link to food or drink. As merely traces of what they once contained, the food packages that the artist reuses metonymically designate their absent content; without fail, it is an absence that makes reference to the famines and droughts endured by the African continent. In the exhibition catalogue devoted to the artist by the Oriel Mostyn Gallery,9 9 - El Anatsui: Gawu (Wales: Oriel Mostyn Gallery, 2003). Martin Barlow reports on the kinds of uses that the population ordinarily derives from these cast-off products. We learn that food packaging containers are reclaimed as plates on which to cook purées that are consumed at night, while their roughly pierced lids become cassava root graters (a basic food in most households). Furthermore, the metal plates lend themselves to the imprinting of obituaries; they are affixed to walls and doors to inform the community about a death and to provide information about the funeral.

The artist nonetheless escapes the bounds of this first degree of ­referentiality. At a fundamental level, Anatsui proposes to annex ­commonly rejected, contemptuous forms that, once integrated into his work, reverse the order of consumption and production. He reissues discarded objects to which he attributes a new value, thus taking up a procedure dear to the New Realists—“the poetic recycling of the real.” Reincarnated, the ­packages have a new existence when once they had been condemned since, contrary to other items, packages irremediably loose, along with their functionality, their reason for being. 

Not only does the new function of waste reveal an artistic ­dimension that its initial use ignored, but its mutation renders it sublime. Anatsui moves away from the register of tinkering or of anecdotal social ­commentary to create forms whose magnificence he exalts. For example, with the assistance of a whole team to carry out his meticulous work in the mind-blowing Cloth series (Earth Cloth, 2003; Man’s Cloth, 2002; Woman’s Cloth, 2002), El Anatsui flattened, pierced, and assembled metallic objects with small copper wires, producing tremendous metallic hangings in vivid and shimmering colours. Our occidental gaze eagerly recognizes great abstract compositions in the tradition of contemporary art, yet the artist’s “sculptural canvases” equally incite other associations: from waste the artist creates finery fit for a king.

Local Culture and International Relations

In the cultural tradition of Ghanaian weavers, the grand Kente cloth from which Anatsui’s works draws inspiration is in fact the privileged dress of the powerful. Originally from Ghana, the artist inherited his ­knowledge of this tradition from his brother and father, who both ­practiced it as ­amateurs. The long bands of Kente sewn together constitute great ­pieces of symbolic motifs that are worn by chiefs or acquired by ­tourists in the city centres of Accra and Kumasi. It follows that since Anatsui confers to hard, arid metal the suppleness of fabric, he shares in the occult ­powers ascribed to blacksmiths for their mastery of fire and their capacity to transmute elements. As an alchemical waste collector, in other words, he knows how to transform the iron trash of Nsukka into gold. However, is it possible that the spell of this “magician”10 10 - I purposely borrow the term used by Jean-Hubert Martin, curator of the ­exhibition Les magiciens de la terre (MNAM, 1989), in an effort to underscore the ­conventional view of the “authentic” African artist recovered by Anatsui. is cast upon foreign ­viewers hungry for a tradition that is largely reconstituted for their benefit? Although this is a legitimate question, we refrain from ­attributing to his work the kind of univocal or simplistic reading common to public ­opinion.

As a true weaver, Anatsui exhumes waste to join together in a ­tapestry the recollection of everyday life and that of culture with the ­contemporary history of Africa and its colonial past. The liquor-bottle caps, for example, simultaneously elicit social practices (the actual ­drinking of alcoholic ­beverages), history (certain brands of liquor brewed in local distilleries such as “Ecomog” derive their names from political events),11 11 - Ecomog is a peace-keeping force created in 1990 and mostly made up of Nigerians, which intervened in many West-African conflicts. and the ­history of international relations. In truth, Europeans introduced alcoholic beverages to Africa during their first commercial exchanges. Following an analogous logic of causality, products such as canned milk goods, ­imported at a massive scale from Europe and the United States, participated in the proliferation of garbage dumping by providing African countries with packaging that they lacked the technological means either to treat or to recycle (Peak Project, 1999).

From Nigerian Notoriety to International Recognition: The Multifaceted Reception of a Universal Body of Work

Let us return to Italy, where, during the Venice Biennale, fascinated visitors discovered an Anatsui installation on the façade of the famous Palazzo Fortuni. Subsequent to his first exhibition at the ­aforementioned biennale in 1990, the artist has attracted international attention. His works have since been shown at the four corners of the world in solo shows (El Anatsui: Gawu was displayed in the U.K. and the United States in 2004-05) as well as group exhibitions (Africa Remix was presented at Düsseldorf, London, Paris, and Johannesburg in 2005).

The recognition Anatsui has received is atypical compared to that of countless other African artists who depend on international networks. Considered as one of Nigeria’s most important sculptors, he has enjoyed a significant local notoriety well before being noticed by western ­museums. He has participated in his country’s cultural growth with the popular exhibition AKA Circle of Exhibiting Artists, which he organizes every year. As well, his munificent teaching at the university since 1975 has been the fertile soil fostering the Nsukka School. To this day, Anatsui chooses to remain in Nigeria. He has not given in to the logic of an international career commonly predicated on the label of “African artist,” which paradoxically goes hand in hand with abandoning one’s country of origin.

Perceived as a spiritualist by the Nigerian Igbo public or as a ­minimalist by the Skoto Gallery in New York where he ­exhibited his work ­alongside Sol LeWitt (1996), Anatsui could be called a universal artist, were it not for the term’s trivialization. Rooted in his knowledge of the African ­continent and of international art, his work conflates layers of ­references and ­significations drawn from the past and the present. Although all this could have been a perfect recipee to bask in a purely ­identity-based ­exploration, the artist avoids the possible traps of exploring the ­registers of waste, miserabilism or even ­primitivism that would have mired his work in the “­typically African” stereotype.12 12 - I make implicit reference to the polemical position adopted by Jean-Loup Amselle in L’Art de la friche (Paris: Flammarion, 2005) that conceives of waste as the “icon of postmodernity” and of Africa as the archetypal waste continent, a refuge of the western imagination caught up in a romantic aesthetic of decline and praiseful of the mainstream exotic. According to the author, many African artists “continue to recycle the western perception of Africa of the 1970s. They are still bound to the ­mirror that the West bequeaths them.” In this way, El Anatsui ­creates great work that truly renews the processing of waste in art.

[Translated from the French by Vivian Ralickas]

This article also appears in the issue 64 - Waste

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