“Playing with Chance” at the CCA in Lagos gives the audience a chance to meet with the artist’s creative and personal life under the canopy of his 70th birthday.
Who is El Anatsui? That is the question. An art enigma? A lecturer and mentor? A man who will do nothing else but art? The Exhibition “Playing with Chance” at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Lagos does not only try to answer these questions, but gives the audience a chance to meet with the artist’s creative and personal life under the canopy of his 70th birthday.
The exhibition also tries to demystify the 40-year career of El Anatsui as both sculptor and teacher, and extends this process with video and audio documentation of an artist who has expanded the language of contemporary sculpture locally and internationally. The works are a testament of how the artist has been able to overcome the constraints of availability of materials locally, using aluminium bottle tops, driftwood, iron nails, Kente materials and printing plates. Artists show their works to mark their birthdays, but the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos does the exact opposite. The centre raids El Anatsui’s studio, study and library to create an alternative insight into the man.
CCA, Lagos also tracks down the works of three of his former students – Nnenna Okore, Lucy Azubuike and Amarachi Okafor – to be part of the exhibition. On display are sketchbooks, drawings, letters, key exhibition planning and instruction documents, a shelf with books he reads, books he features in and brochures and exhibition publications he has contributed to. Also exhibited are video and audio documentation that include a documentary on the artist, a panel discussion on his works, and an artist talk during a residency. The centre did not spare showing a selection of his pay slips from the University of Nigeria in Nsukka over a 36-year period. Curator Bisi Silva and her team included archival pictures, which were taken from his days as a lecturer, and from his travels as an artist. El Anatsui has been living in Nigeria since 1975 as an artist and lecturer. Since his retirement as a lecturer in 2011, he has been rotating his time between Ghana and Nigeria. He combines the characteristics of creating sculptures with installation art, as is seen in his bottle top hangings that look like drooping sculptures.
El Anatsui’s work is a commentary on African history, colonialism and the daily realities on the continent, and the exhibition helps the viewer to understand the mind of the man. Anatsui takes advantage of the limited recycle technology in West Africa to gather materials that would have otherwise been piles of non-degradable waste to create art, and in doing this, he creates an awareness of the importance of recycling these materials that litter many city streets in Africa, thereby playing his part in making the world a healthier place with less waste. Over the years, El Anatsui has been seen to beat this “recyclable waste” into his monumental bottle top sculptural hangings, using such implements as chainsaws, welding torches and power tools. These works can be found in major art institutions across the world, such as the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., the British Museum, London, the Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, the de Young Museum, San Francisco and the Centre Pompidou, Paris. This artist, who was mostly influenced by his stay in Nigeria during the vibrant post-independence art movements of the 1960s and ’70s, is presented in this exhibition in a way that is unparalleled.
Obidike Okafor is a content consultant, freelance art journalist and documentary film maker based in Lagos.