Do not try to train El Anatsui in politics. The Ghanaian artist has lived for forty years in Nigeria, he will not comment on the recent presidential elections nor the violence of the Islamist group Boko Haram. ” The country is volatile, many things can happen, you get used to it and you stay there ,” he says stoically. He added: ” The hot peppers are hot, there are always worms that live in them .”
El Anatsui expresses himself in an oracle. In Nigeria, he is revered as an old sage, better as a national pride. He is now the most highly regarded African artist. Unlike many of his colleagues, he gained international fame without leaving the continent. The chenu man we met in France at Chaumont-sur-Loire, while he was installing one of his captivating metal hangings, is imperturbable. If he lends himself to good intercourse with the interview, his mind is elsewhere, to his attachment.
The artist is not the type to get lost in the biographical details. He just gave a few lines. As a teenager in Ghana, he decided to study art without any specific ideas on the subject. ” I did not know Picasso or Mondrian, any more than the Ghanaian artists ,” he says, ” but I like to take risks, I knew that at one time or another I would taste what art had To offer me. “At 18 years, he already mastered a good number of techniques. But it is on the sculpture that he chooses to concentrate. Once he had finished his schooling, he was a teacher himself. After five years, he is invited to teach at Nsukka University in Nigeria. He was thinking of staying there six years, he will not leave any more, seduced by chaos.
He starts to work from cracked clay pots. ” In my culture, when a pot breaks, it is not lost, it regenerates itself , an intact pot is only used for one thing, broken it has several functions, ” he explains. Hence his interest in objects disqualified, seemingly useless and to which he restores a new life. In 1999, he braided his first sculptures composed of crushed capsules. At first sight, these sculptures shine like gold. It is only by approaching that one distinguishes the interlacings of flattened capsules. ” When I found a capsule I did not immediately use it ,” he says, ” I kept it for a long time.” A small isolated unit does not mean much. But if you link the units together, it makes sense, it takes shape. “Would it be a metaphor for individuals in simple monads? Or the alchemical principle of the vile metal transformed into gold? A bit of all that answers the artist. El Anatsui is not annoying. The interminable exegeses, very little for him. ” A work defends itself, ” he repeats. He also evades any classification. ” I do not want to be seen as an African artist ,” he insists, ” who would like to be treated as a European artist?
“Recycling is not my business”
Do not talk to him about ecological art. Consumerism, waste or recycling is not its purpose. ” I just tried to see how far I can draw a medium, and the capsules I thought would not last.” At the end of the third work I did, I began to glimpse the possibilities. “Sixteen years ago he flattened the capsules and knitted them in his hangings. He even made agreements with local distilleries that provide him with equipment. Its largest metallic tapestry, made for the facade of the Royal Academy in London in 2013, was sixteen meters high and fifty meters wide.
Since his participation in the Venice Biennale in 2007, he has seduced the most jaded museum directors. The market had already dubbed it a year earlier with the sale by Sotheby’s of one of its draperies for 1.4 million dollars. Having become the most expensive African artist in the world, he joined the most prestigious collections, that of François Pinault in the lead. In March, one of his works was proposed for $ 1.5 million by the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. ” In twenty years, his prices have been multiplied by ten or twenty, ” acknowledges Elisabeth Lalouschek, of the October gallery that has represented him for 22 years in London. He does not like to talk about money. ” My career has developed in an organic way ,” he says, ” I do not have my eyes fixed on my market. ” Success did not rise to the head. ” His work has taken a majestic turn, but it has not changed, it is always cool, ” says Elisabeth Lalouschek.
Cool, but surrounded. While he had only one assistant in his early days, he recruited about forty today. He even plans to establish a workshop in Ghana and another, probably in the United States. By migrating, even temporarily, his work will necessarily take another turn.He knows especially that since his Venetian consecration, he has no right to error: ” you can not disappoint, too many eyes look at you “.
El Anatsui, at the arts and nature center of Chaumont-sur-Loire, until 1 November,