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Contemporary African artist El Anatsui can probably tell you the drinking statistics for Nsukka, a town in southeast Nigeria. Over the past 15 years, his studio there has grown from a solitary art space to a sort of recycling laboratory with over two dozen assistants sorting, bending, and weaving together Nsukka’s most recognizable detritus—liquor bottle caps.
Anatsui was born in 1944 in still-colonized Ghana and lived there during much of the political upheaval, attending art school and then working as an artist. In his earliest work—made with wood and torches—he burned Ghanaian symbols into wooden trays, art derived from his desire for some type of cultural constancy. In 1975, he moved to Nsukka, Nigeria, where he taught for the next 40 years, instructing art students to “use whatever the environment throws up,” pushing them to move beyond traditional media. “The Earth is our greatest resource—it’s cheap too,” he chuckles, when we meet at Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. They represent him and are currently hosting their third solo show of his work, "Pot of Wisdom."
Anatsui is an unremarkable character—he seems like an ordinary guy with an everyday job. At 68, he’s perhaps too mature to indulge in the ostentatious displays of many successful artists. He’s an untethered, childless bachelor—his own father had 32 children. He speaks softly and offers philosophical soundbites about his work. “My art is a metaphor for life—things change.” Anatsui himself seems destined to live a life of repetition and predictability. When he isn’t traveling or spending his hours bending and shaping discarded aluminum, he plays checkers with friends. He’s that guy at the community center—the one with the simple white box fade haircut and wire glasses with the booming laugh.
By many accounts, Anatsui has long been an art star—his work has been featured in group shows around the world with regularity as far back as the '90s. But his recent work with aluminum caps in the form of large-scale kente cloth-like installations has catapulted him to international fame in mainstream art spaces—he is no longer the artist only known by academics and obscure curators. The “Prof” of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, has become one of the premiere African artists. He was recently featured on Art 21—the PBS art series—and Susan Mullin Vogel, the founding director of New York’s Museum for African Art, both authored a book, El Anatsui: Art and Life, and directed a documentary, Fold Crumple Crush: The Art of El Anatsui about his work.
"Pot of Wisdom" is his second show in New York City in as many months. In November, the High Line premiered Broken Bridge II, Anatsui’s largest work to date—a 37-by-157–foot outdoor sculpture flanking the façade of a building between West 21st and 22nd streets in Chelsea. Originally featured in Paris as part of the 2012 Triennale, Broken Bridge II is made entirely of cassava grates and mirrors, intricately woven together by wire. Despite a somewhat fragile appearance, it’s solid stuff—its construction survived superstorm Sandy. In February 2013, Anatsui’s first solo show in a New York museum, "Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui," will take up residence at Brooklyn Museum, running until the first week of August.
Despite growing interest in Anatsui’s work, it is often erroneously referred to as textile. “I’m not doing textile,” he says. “I’m a sculptor.” Anatsui is attracted to the freedom of sculpture and finds other mediums limiting. “Sculpture to me is a freer form of expression, in which you the creator have more things to think about than if you are weaving with thread only.” He waves off assertions that his work is textile because the bottle caps are stitched together. “I think it is laziness," he says about that description. "The appearance of the work gives the impression that it’s textile, but it is not—it’s sculpture.”
Considering galleries aren’t too confident hanging his work without assistance—something he finds both annoying and amusing—Anatsui will be spending a lot of time on this side of the Atlantic. Once displayed, his work often appears to have a specific layout—every groove and slope meticulously placed—but he is less than attached to the final appearance once the art is on the wall. He is most comfortable with fluidity and surprise. “My work is never fixed—it can change according to what space and what circumstances are available to it,” he says. “Art…springs from its environment.” Broken Bridge II, for example, was enlarged to accommodate the size of the High Line building.
But for all of its sturdiness, one gets the impression Anatsui would have been just as satisfied if some pieces were lost in the wind—another example of the environment throwing something up.