Earth’s Skin, 2007

El Anatsui is one of the most well-known contemporary artists from West Africa. Born in Ghana in 1944, he graduated from the College of Art in Kumasi, Ghana, and then moved to Nsukka, in Nigeria, where he taught at the university. Although his art education was Western-oriented, Anatsui’s work has been deeply influenced by his African artistic heritage. He continues to live and work in Nigeria, using themes and materials drawn from his environment.

Anatsui’s art practice is characterised by the use of everyday materials. These are physically transformed and used as a tool for entering into a dialogue with history. He is best known for a body of work that he began in the late 1990s, where he uses discarded bottle caps. The caps are flattened, twisted and linked together to form colourful, tapestry-like hanging sculptures. Through these abstract artworks, the artist weaves together the past and the present and explores themes related to African history, the impact of human activity on our planet and other social, political and economic issues of our times.

The artist’s work has been exhibited around the world and has been acquired by prestigious international museums, including Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which has in its permanent collection one of his most iconic pieces, titled “Earth’s Skin”. The breathtaking piece, which is approximately 5m by 10m in size, is made from discarded bottle caps and copper wire, and deals with the damage to our environment. Anatsui was in Abu Dhabi recently to participate in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi: Talking Art Series, and in an exclusive interview with Weekend Review, spoke about his life and work. Excerpts:

How do you feel about the Guggenheim and other prestigious museums coming to this region?

Museums are essentially cultural institutions meant to educate people. So, the important thing is not the location of the museum, but the agenda of the museum. I am happy to see that the museums in the UAE are taking a very wide view of culture and are collecting artworks from Asia, Africa and around the world. I feel they are on the right path and I applaud that.

And what do feel about your work being in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?

The first time I came to the UAE, I met two traders here who were from my little village in Ghana and were in Dubai to buy goods. So, I have always associated this place with commerce and trade. But my last three trips have all been for cultural occasions such as the Sharjah Biennial, Art Dubai and the Guggenheim Talks. I now see this place as the emerging cultural metropolis of the world, and am very happy to have my work in the collection of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. From being known only in Ghana, and then Nigeria, to having my work in European and American museums, has been a good journey. And it is nice to widen that circle.

“Earth’s Skin” is one of your most emblematic artworks. What is the concept behind it?

I created this piece for the Sharjah Biennial in 2007, which had a theme related to the environment. I have been working with bottle caps for a long time, but this was the first piece that had a combination of all the different patterns, weaves and textures that I have developed in this medium. This was also the first time where in between the dense areas, I incorporated some open, see-through areas made from the rings around the bottles. In a metaphoric reference to the way we harm our skin, which is the largest organ in our body, this piece depicts the various injuries, cuts and bruises that we have inflicted on the skin or crust of the Earth. And the open areas refer to how human beings have overexploited natural resources, leaving almost nothing behind. This is one of my most travelled pieces and has been exhibited in Norway, Japan and the United States. It is nice that it is back in the UAE now.

You have been working with bottle caps obtained from a local distillery since 1999. What is the deeper significance of this medium for you?

I initially began working with these bottle caps because I wanted to make sculptures with fluid forms. But later, I researched the history of how these beverages came to Africa, and found that they were brought by Europeans traders, who exchanged them for various goods, and eventually even for slaves, who were taken to the Americas. The slaves probably worked on farms producing sugar cane, which in turn was used to make the drinks that were exported to Europe and brought back to Africa. So, in a sense, these bottle caps represent a link between the people of Africa, Europe and America. When I work with this medium, I am very much aware of its historic significance. For me, the process of linking the bottle caps to create these artworks is also symbolic, and raises questions about whether the historic links they represent between Africa and other continents were beneficial or destructive.

Does the physical process by which you create your sculptures and recycling of discarded materials make the work more meaningful?

A lot of physical effort goes into crushing, twisting and linking the bottle caps, which involves the touch of many hands. I believe that when hands touch something they leave a charge on it and the more hands that touch something, the more energy it has. I work with 30 assistants, and I hope viewers can feel the energy that we have infused in the artworks. I use discarded materials, but I don’t recycle them in the correct sense of the word. I actually take them out of the cycle and elevate them to the higher level of being part of a work of art. My work reflects the cycle of death and then regeneration in a different form, and conveys my belief that the human spirit is indestructible.

Being so fluid, your sculptures can be installed in many different ways. Are you particular about how they should be displayed?

I never get involved in the installation, and I am always interested to see how different people relate to the concept and interpret it in their own way. The most innovative and dynamic installation I have seen of my work was at a show in the Vatican, where instead of hanging it conservatively like a painting, they draped it with the corners concealed, adding a new dimension to the work.

You learnt about Western art before being exposed to your own culture. How did that affect your work?

I grew up in a mission house, where I had limited exposure to my culture. And the art school I studied in was affiliated to a British academy, with a Western curriculum and faculty. But later I educated myself by spending hours at the National Cultural Centre, watching the weavers and other craftsmen at work. The fact that my exposure to my culture happened in this way was good in a sense because it created a huge hunger in me to learn about my artistic heritage. Also, it made me realise that there can be many different approaches to artistic expression. My education in Western art enabled me to compare the direct visual Western approach with the conceptual, symbolic approach in my culture. And I found the conceptual approach more challenging and interesting. I had studied only about sculptures made from bronze or marble and in the natural colour of the material. But I saw that African sculptors used various materials such as wood, leather and clay and painted them with bright colours. So I started off as a purist, but my exposure to local arts and crafts opened my mind, and led me to work with clay, wood, and found materials such as discarded milk-can lids, printing plates and bottle caps.

How do you feel about art from West Africa being in the global spotlight these days, including at the Marker segment of Art Dubai 2013?

What you are talking about refers to art as a commodity that can be isolated and brought to art fairs. But art as an expression of everyday life and culture has always been there. Art schools existed in our region long before I began studying art and there were many artists producing interesting work. Cross-cultural awareness has increased today because of modern communication technology.

As an artist, what are your aspirations for the future?

I dream of having a big studio, where a community of artists can work on their different projects under one roof and learn from one another.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.

A convergence of contemporary ideas

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which is being developed in collaboration with Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, is envisaged as a museum that promotes understanding and appreciation of contemporary art, architecture, and other manifestations of modern and contemporary visual culture from an international perspective. The museum will support a transnational curatorial programme of art and visual culture from the 1960s to the present, with a strong focus on art from the Middle East and the cultural traditions of Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates. The museum and its growing permanent collection are owned by the Government of Abu Dhabi.

Surrounded almost entirely by water, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will have spectacular views of the Saadiyat Cultural District and Arabian Gulf. Galleries are distributed around the central atrium on four levels connected by glass bridges above. Open to the elements, the museum cones recall the region’s ancient wind-towers. They house contemporary art commissions and both ventilate and shade the exterior courtyards in a fitting blend of Arabian tradition and modern design. The museum will also feature a 350-seat theatre, education workshops and classrooms, an onsite conservation lab, as well as a retail store, cafés and a restaurant.

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi: Talking Art Series is a dynamic public programme of panels, screenings, art installations, workshops and demonstrations by leading contemporary artists whose works have been acquired for the permanent collection of the museum. The programme, held at Manarat Al Saadiyat, introduces the public to the museum’s curatorial vision and offers a unique opportunity for art lovers to engage with these acclaimed artists, who represent various generations and nationalities, techniques and methods. It offers insights into the curatorial narratives around which the museum’s collection is structured, such as Popular Culture & the Mediated Image; Abstractions; History, Memory, Narrative; System, Process, Concept; and Global Perspectives.

The programme was launched in 2012 with a panel of Richard Armstrong (director of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation), Frank Gehry (architect of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi) and HE Zaki Nusseibeh (adviser to the UAE’s Ministry of Presidential Affairs) presenting a progress update and revealing acquisitions for the museum’s collection from leading artists such as Monir Farmanfarmaian, Subodh Gupta, Rachid Koraïchi, Jacques Villeglé and Ai Weiwei.

The programme for 2013 began in May and featured El Anatsui, Feng Mengbo, Yousuf Nabil, James Rosenquist and Adel Al Siwi. It will continue in November during Abu Dhabi Art, with artists such as Angela Bulloch, Heinz Mack, Marwan, Hassan Sharif, Monika Sosnowska, Jacques Villeglé, and Yang Fudong scheduled to participate.