After 44 Years Of Devoted Service, Ihe-Nsukka Honours El Anatsui

Anatsui dances after his chieftaincy installation. Image: The Guardian

• The Love For Fela’s Music Brought Me Here
• Nigeria Has Not Lost Much Of Its Culture
• Artists Survive In Environment Where There Is Idea Stimulation


First, the hair. They are silver, without space for any other colour. On a sunny day, the hair glistens like cumulus in the sky. They are not receding yet.

Seventy-five years old El Anatsui, the owner of this hair is one of the most respected artists of the contemporary era.

Born in Anyako, Volta Region of Ghana, and trained at the College of Art, University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, in central Ghana, his work with sculpture and woodcarving started as a hobby to keep alive the traditions he grew up with. He began teaching at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1975 and has remained in the university town till date.

The critic John McDonald says: “It has taken many years to find artists who can occupy a prominent place on the global circuit while choosing to reside outside the metropolitan centres. William Kentridge has made his reputation from Johannesburg, and El Anatsui has conquered the planet while living and working in the Nigerian university town of Nsukka.”

He did not dare get his hopes up too high when he got to Nsukka. He didn’t want them to be dashed. Many have had that as a welcome gift in new climes.

One year had gone by, and another, and then another, and he was deep into his stay in the university community, worming his way into the heart of Nsukka art School.

He was working day and night, weekends, putting off vacations, losing weight, gaining weight, growing pale and worn out, waking at odd hours.

With a hammer, chisel, rasps — a piece of metal that resembles a file, with small teeth all over the surface — and banker, a very sturdy workbench, used mostly by sculptors, by his side, Anatsui he was always ready.

Forty-four years is no joke staying in a foreign land. When you listen to him, you get a picture of what it was at the beginning: Excitement and hope.

“I was excited coming to Nigeria,” he says.


Anatsui is courteous and measures his words before bringing them out. “I knew something about Nigerians. I was in school with them. I knew something about the country from primary school. There were Nigerians who taught me, and when I finished secondary school, I taught one or two of them in class.”

He says, softly, “when I went to the university, there were so many Nigerians there. I found them very exciting people. In Ghana, at the time, we were on a government scholarship, but these people came and they paid fees. And for that reason, they tended to be more serious than we on a government scholarship. The government was paying us for schooling. So, I knew that when I got the appointment with the University of Nigeria, I was going to be with very serious people like the ones I met in my school days.”

He flashes a grin.

“Also, when I was in school, I was playing in the university band. I was a trumpeter, and occasionally, a drummer. One of our heroes or icons at that time was Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. I think it was in the final year that he visited my school,” he says.

That was when Fela was trying to introduce afrobeat “and we had the opportunity of playing during the halftime of his performance. I thought that if I came to Nsukka, Fela would be within five hours reach and that I would go and listen to his original music anytime I was in Lagos, which I was doing anyway,” Anatsui reveals.

His voice is gentle and cultured.

Now: try to imagine a Bohemian life.

“Each time I was travelling to Lagos, I made sure it was Friday. So, in those early days, I was always going by road for my long vacation,” he says. “I will come to Lagos and do my papers and international driving licence, and in the evening, retire to Fela’s Shrine to listen to good music. At dawn, I will take off to Ghana.”

The artist says, jocularly, “Fela’s music was original to many of us. It was the kind of music you want to hear over and over again. I didn’t want the situation where I would have to wait for him to travel to see his performance. All those things put together, my colleagues, who were hardworking, and then, Fela made it exciting for me to live and work in Nigeria.”

Why Nsukka and not any other place in Nigeria?

He adds, creating a world for the inner eye to inhabit.
“UNN was the place that gave me an appointment. When I came, I found the place welcoming and I didn’t think of going to another university. It was the time that I came that we had the likes of Uche Okeke, Obiora Udechukwu, Chike Aniakor, and so many artists around. Nsukka art school had a very prestigious formation. The staff were very good, and so, initially, I thought I would do a couple of years and then renew at the end. I kept renewing, and the university, on a couple of occasions, renewed without me knowing. So, I needed a place that was very exciting.”

He says, “an artist survives very well in an environment where there is idea stimulation and I have a lot of stimulation in the environment from the things that are cultural and even the language. I’m a very good fan of Pidgin English. It has a lot of art and imagery. Listening to Pidgin English being spoken can be interesting. The radio in my car is permanently on WAZOBIA FM where they speak pidgin. The expressions are revealing and entertaining at the same time. I see that in Nigeria, you haven’t lost much of your culture. The colonialists did not stay long here. In Ghana, they destroyed so many things. When I came, I saw that in this area, especially the Igbo community, a lot of the culture was still intact. In those days, I used to go to events; I even went to a place where a friend took ozo title. The Nsukka environment was exalting, people were experimenting, and sometimes, not experimenting but very active – one that urged you on to do something. It was a synergetic kind of, at that time.”

And he didn’t feel like joining the ‘brain drain’ movement of the 90s?

“I think the people who left mostly were not Nigerians. They were expatriate. Though I’m an expatriate. What I think I was earning did not have anything to do with money. More so, my practise was good enough for me to worry about money the way others would do,” he says.

He admits, “I don’t think I have any regret living here these past 44 years because you cannot imagine another scenario to compare with or maybe with the Ghana that I left.”

According to him, “that’s one thing I don’t know. It could happen, maybe not. The thing is that the kind of artist that I’m, somebody who is constantly working for a new way of doing things, Maybe I would have survived in Ghana, I don’t know. When you leave your domain or country where you are used to things and come to a new place, you tend to probably move faster than when you were in your home where you have all the comforts. You might not be adventurous enough or you might just relax, new things to learn, new challenges to move on.”

Anatsui reveals that his first experience with art was through drawing letters on a chalkboard. “During my pre-school years, I lived in a mission house with an uncle who was a reverend. We used chalk and slate. The letters always baffled me. I thought they were very interesting signs. I thought they were human beings,” the sculptor explains.

The smile on his face is huge. It looms large enough for a close-up shot. “When I went to university, sculpture looked interesting to me. That was an area I had not been introduced to in all the other stages of education. So, I instinctively chose to major in it. Having done that, I discovered that I made a very good choice because sculpture seems to be so wide that within it, you can have so many others,” he confesses.

He adds, “in sculpture, for instance, you handle colour like a painter — They are even restricted kind of to canvas or only papers. In sculpture, you’re handling colours in so many ways. You have all the other areas subsumed in it. As a sculptor, you can use fabrics, paints and just anything to work with. You can even use clay, which is ceramics. All the other areas are easily found in the discipline. As a sculptor, you have the freedom to work in all these areas.”

He expresses a variety of themes and demonstrates how African art can be shown in a multitude of ways that are not seen as ‘typical’ African.

His work utilises conceptual modes that are used by European and American artists but hardly in Africa. He uses his inspiration and materials from Africa to speak about humanity.

In his studio practice, Anatsui creates experiences for his viewers conceptually. He believes that “human life is not something which is cut and dried. It is something that is constantly in a state of change.”

Anatsui’s preferred media are clay, wood and found objects, which he uses to create sculptures based on traditional Ghanaian beliefs and other subjects. He has cut wood with chainsaws and blackened it with acetylene torches.

After he moved from Winneba to Nsukka, wood became less accessible to him. This drove him to pursue clay as a medium.

“I have spent time doing some works. They call it ceramics. That was about three or four years ago. But that’s what I call ceramic sculpture,” the artist retorts.

Anastui’s Broken Pots: Sculpture was a series of vessels formed by shards of existing and created pottery. This series was Anatsui’s first experiment with using many parts to create a whole. Often providing new context or meaning to the pieces he was using.

More recently, he has turned to installation art. Some of his works resemble woven cloths such as kente cloth but were not intended as textiles, but as sculptures.

In his installations, draws connections between consumption, waste and the environment.

For him, art grows out of each particular situation, and artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up.

He says, “as a sculptor, you’re delving into the meaning of form and the material. Let’s take a look at clay. It is soft and pliable, but when it dries, it is hard. When you fire it, it becomes harder. The main characteristic is that it is fragile. It breaks easily. A sculptor, for instance, might not be thinking of clay when he or she wants to do a work that is not fragile. I’m not restricted to any particular medium and grow into something else.”

According to him, “at this stage, I haven’t closed my eyes or signed off. My mind is constantly in search of any medium that will bring a new message. When I worked with wood, it was to explore certain ideas. It doesn’t mean that I’m finished with wood; I’m still working with wood, but not as much as I’m doing with metals. When I came to metals, it wasn’t as if the wood has been exhausted but because metal comes with a new message and idea. When a new medium shows itself up, then it tends to draw more attention. It doesn’t mean that I have left the other one.”

These works are made from found objects, usually metal bottle caps, which are tied together with wire to create vast sculptures that resemble tapestries. Anatsui incorporates Adinsubli for his works, an acronym made up of uli, nsibidi, and Adinkra symbols, alongside Ghanaian motifs.

With his metal hangings continuing to spread over the world, Western art critics began to connect Anatsui’s work with potential art historical references in order for them, foreigners, to create familiarity. For example, one mentions that his bottle tops could be compared to “Duchamp’s bicycle wheel” and “recall disparate Modernist sweet spots without quite settling into any familiar category.”

On Saturday, August 24, 2019, the traditional ruler of Ihe-Nsukka autonomous community, Igwe George Asadu, honoured the Ghanaian-born Nigerian artist with the chieftaincy title of Ikedire. This is the first traditional title conferred on him since his sojourn here.

On why he chose Anatsui for honour, Igwe Asadu said: “Ihe community searched around Nsukka and all its environs for a distinguished and outstanding personality to be celebrated. Out of the very few names shortlisted, no one qualified for this recognition more than Anatsui.”

He says, “the first time I heard, I thought it was good. It comes with a challenge. You are challenged to see how you can make things better. It’s an official way of having access to members of the community in terms of ideas that can help me and the community to move on. These days, you have artists not looking only in their studios. They are becoming involved in a series of collaborations. Now, if I meet a member of the community and I ask of an idea, they are not going to look at me like, who is this. They will take me seriously and try to collaborate.”

He continues, “when I first arrived in Nsukka almost four decades and a half ago, little did I know that I would be here today as a recipient of this great honour being bestowed on me. Nsukka has been my home for a longer time than even my place of birth and where I grew up in Ghana. I have spent more years living among you all than I have lived anywhere on earth. And, because of this, the town and people of Nsukka shall always remain an indelible part of my being and experience.”

Anatsui adds, “today, I am now being admitted into the honoured sanctum of this town, a few of whose historical antecedents I have tried to encapsulate here, as a reminder of what Nsukka once was and can build upon. I shall continue to do my best to assist in perpetuating some of these legacies.”

Anatsui won an honorable mention at the First Ghana National Art Competition during his time as an undergraduate student in 1968. The following year he was awarded the Best Student of the Year.

In 1990, Anatsui had his first important group show at the Studio Museum In Harlem, New York. He also was one out of three artists singled out in the 1990 exhibition, Contemporary African Artists: Chaning traditions, which was extended for five years.

He has since exhibited his work around the world, including, the Venice Biennale (1990), the 8th Osaka Sculpture Triennale (1995); the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (2001); the National Museum of African Art (2001); Liverpool Biennial (2002); the 5th Gwangju Biennale (2004) and Hayward Gallery (2005).

He also exhibited at the Fowler Museum at UCLA (2007); Venice Biennale (2007); National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. (2008); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2008–09); Rice University Art Gallery, Houston (2010), A 2010 retrospective of his work, entitled, When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, was organised by the Museum for African Art and opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It subsequently toured venues in the United States for three years, concluding at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

His works have equally been shown at the Clark Art Institute (2011) and at the Brooklyn Museum (2013).

In a span of two years, he bagged three international Honorary Doctorate degrees from University of Harvard, USA; University of Capetown, South Africa and his own alma mater, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Arts, Kumasi.

Again, in 2014, he was made an honorary royal scholar and equally elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2015, Anatsui clinched the prestigious Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 56th international Art Exhibition of the Biennale de Venezia, and just this year, he was decorated with the glamorous Praemium Imperiale Award for Sculpture plus countless other numerous awards, recognitions and honours.