‘The Art of El Anatsui’

Film Review by Elliot Ross*

Making a film about an artist whose work is as beautiful as El Anatsui’s must be a daunting thing. But Susan Vogel, in her new documentary, ‘Fold, Crumple, Crush: The Art of El Anatsui’ (trailer above), has achieved a sensitive and sophisticated portrait that will intrigue Anatsui devotees even as it wins him new admirers.

The film follows Anatsui at work at his studio in Nsukka in Nigeria’s Enugu State, and in Venice during the 2007 Biennale at which he exhibited. In keeping with Anatsui’s refusal of geographically determined identities, the film has him wandering through the pigeons of St Mark’s Square and sweating down a hot Nsukka Road lined with refuse, with little fussing over transitions. The focus is on him and his work, wherever they happen to be.

At the studio, we find him organising his team of all-male assistants in shaping – folding, crumpling, crushing – and weaving together the thousands of bottle-caps that make up his sculptures – “a marriage,” he calls it, “between thinking and sculpture.” He visits a nearby distillery to harvest great sacks of bottle-caps. “Things that have been used,” he murmurs, “things that link people together.”

One of 32 children, Anatsui was brought up in Ghana by his uncle, a presbyterian minister. He came to the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in the early 70s, shortly after the end of the Nigerian Civil War, and became involved in the Natural Synthesis movement, which explored a syncretism between local and Western forms.

Anatsui’s assistants make sheets in various shapes and colours, and these sheets are then laid out together on the concrete floor of the studio. He tests every individual sheet to make sure they can be folded in all directions. He then arranges and re-arranges the collage, photographs every part of it, and announces, “I think the whole thing’s looking too busy.” He puts the images onto his computer and searches, with his mouse, for a composition he is happy with. A decent-sized Anatsui takes between two and three months to complete.

In Venice, Vogel skillfully combines footage of giddy gallery-goers and Anatsui, as they encounter each other, and the majestic work that looms above them. People stumble guiltily over the pronunciation of his name, and ask him to explain what they are looking at.

Anatsui tells them it is all bottle tops, mostly from brandy bottles. “A lot of drinking has to go into it. I did some myself.”

“I’m a Nigerian,” he explains to another gawping visitor.

“Okay,” they reply, “and where are you from?”

“I’m from, er, Ghana,” he says, and the visitor nods.

Screened at Columbia University last month, the film was followed by a panel that included Vogel herself and the historian Mamadou Diouf, who praised Anatasui’s work as an instance of “being African in a way that’s outside the anthropological grid.”

Vogel said she had wrestled in – and through – the film with the problem of labels of identity as a “vehicle of marginalisation”. Particularly as he has attracted the attention of would-be canon-formers, the question of Anatsui’s identity tends to be discussed within a binary: either he is to be considered an African artist, or a global artist, or, at best, some mixture of the two.

Mamadou Diouf suggested that Anatsui might instead be usefully thought of as an artist of the Atlantic. As he pointed out, the southern part of Ghana, where Anatsui grew up, has been engaged in one way or another with the Western world since the mid-16th century, and one way of apprehending that violent history is to meditate on the way a commodity such as brandy has been moved around, valued and consumed.

* Elliot Ross, a graduate student at Columbia University, writes occasional posts for AIAC.

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