El Anatsui's survey exhibition "Triumphant Scale" at Haus der Kunst – the first ever in Europe – is the most comprehensive and detailed presentation of his oeuvre thus far. Occupying the entire East Wing, the exhibition comprises key works from five decades of the artist's career. At the core of the exhibition, which focuses on the triumphant and monumental nature of El Anatsui's groundbreaking oeuvre, are the bottle-cap works from the last two decades, with their majestic, imposing presence and dazzling colors. The exhibition also presents the lesser-known wood sculptures and wall reliefs from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, ceramic sculptures from the 1970s, as well as drawings, prints, and sketchbooks.
The exhibition reveals the artist's tireless preoccupation with the question of how a contemporary sculptural concept can be developed from the rich plastic innovations of classical and traditional African art. El Anatsui has persistently worked to transform the formal and sculptural possibilities of African sculptural idioms and, over fifty years, he has repeatedly revised and reinvented his material and compositional techniques to astonishing effect – from the early smaller wooden reliefs with their incised markings and broken ceramic forms, to the monumental outdoor cement sculptures, and, more recently, the vast and spectacular metal wall and floor works, which blur the boundaries between sculpture, painting and assemblage. In El Anatsui's hands, light, form, color, porousness and corporeality merge into awe-inspiring and triumphant works of art.
El Anatsui’s Broken Pot series of the 1970s is characterized by the use of negative space and fragmentation as a structuring principle, and as metaphoric statement about life, history and memory. The wood works from the following decade create intimacy less by their relatively small scale than by their incised markings, inspired by the Adinkra signs of the Akan and Uli motifs of the Igbo, or indigenous West African writing systems, such as Nsibidi, Bamum and Vai scripts. The wood sculptures also have distinctive gestural markings made with a chain saw. The metal works, produced since 2000, dwarf the viewer with their magnificence and imposing scale, while captivating at close range with their jewel-like detail.
As El Anatsui commented in 2003, the use of found materials is of fundamental importance: "I experimented with many materials. I also work with material that has experienced a lot of touch and use by people... and these types of materials and works are more charged than materials or pieces that I have worked with machines. Art grows out of any specific situation, and I think artists should work better with what their environment currently provides." The weathered surfaces of the transformed objects seem initially like a meditation on transience but, as Okwui Enwezor observes, El Anatsui intrinsically expands the possibilities of sculpture by responding to every material "as if he just discovered it in the flow of time and history."
El Anatsui generates meaning out of his material and technical process. For example, the bottle caps come from hard liquors introduced by Europeans, as currency – and thus a means of subjugation – during the era of transatlantic slavery and colonialisation. The process of cutting, flattening, squeezing, twisting, folding and joining of thousands of these bottle caps, together with copper wire that weave together fabricated sections into a single work, speaks to the making of human communities out of connected individual subjectivities
Importantly, El Anatsui's work is shaped by the interplay between the philosophical and aesthetic discourses of art and literature in post-colonial Africa. In 1962, the historic "Conference of African Writers of English Expression" at the Makerere College (now Makerere University) in Kampala, Uganda focused on the question of language and the new African literature. The participants included militant nationalists who rejected European languages as a medium for African literature and internationalists who considered global literary traditions an inspiration. Despite their differences, it became clear that Western literary traditions could not be passively accepted as the only model for new African literature. Similarly, the Mbari Artists and Writers Club, Ibadan, convened leading artists, writers from the continent committed to the production and discussion of postcolonial modernist work in Africa. Besides writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Es’kia Mphahlele and Christopher Okigbo (who were at Makerere), Mbari membership included the artists Demas Nwoko and Ibrahim El Salahi, but also Vincent Kofi who was El Anatsui’s mentor, and Uche Okeke who helped attract him to Nsukka in 1975.
Site-specific works at Haus der Kunst
Fascinated by the museum’s monumental architecture, El Anatsui has created three works especially for this exhibition: two indoor works, "Logoligi Logarithm" and "Rising Sea", and "Second Wave" on the building’s façade. "Logoligi Logarithm", designed for the vast centre hall of the East Wing, consists of approximately 65 individual parts made of aluminum and copper wire, forming a walkable labyrinth. Within this concourse, manifold perspectives arise, as well as countless axes and plays of light and shadow is dedicated to the Ghanaian poet Atukwei Okai (1941-2018). "Rising Sea" is an eight-meter tall white wall and floor piece, which despite its dazzling beauty is a commentary on the pressing issue of global warming and coming disasters.
"Second Wave" the approx. 110m installation on the outer façade of Haus der Kunst, incorporates several thousand offset printing plates, sourced from a local Munich printing house where a large daily newspaper is produced, as well as from a printer in Bolzano, which produces art books. The printing plates have been folded, pressed, layered, riveted, bent, curved and welded into 22 panels, each ten meters high and four meters wide, connected by bridging elements. "Second Wave" combines a strong physicality with structural indeterminacy. Okwui Enwezor comments that this installation conjures the popular African rule of life that "no condition is permanent."
An exhibition by Haus der Kunst, Munich. Curated by Okwui Enwezor, former Director of Haus der Kunst and Chika Okeke-Agulu, Professor of Art History at the Department of Art and Archeology, Princeton University, assisted by Haus der Kunst curator Damian Lentini.
The exhibition is made possible thanks to major funding by the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne, the significant support of an anonymous donor, and the generous contributions of Gesellschaft der Freunde Haus der Kunst e.V., Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, Reni Folawiyo, Bolaji Balogun, Yvonne Fasinro and Kavita Chellaram.
"El Anatsui. Triumphant Scale" travels to the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha (October 1, 2019 to February 2, 2020); the Museum of Fine Arts, Berne (March 13 to June 21, 2020); and the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (July 17 to November 1, 2020). Prestel will publish an exhibition catalog of 320 pages, with extensive illustrations from the artist's archive, authored by Enwezor and Okeke-Agulu.
After training in sculpture at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Accra from 1965–1969, El Anatsui (*1944, Anyako, Ghana) taught at the Specialist Training College in Winneba, Ghana. In 1975, he moved to Nigeria where he taught sculpture and design for four decades at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, becoming an emeritus professor in 2016.
A member of the Aka Circle of Exhibiting Artists and a leading figure of the Nsukka School, El Anatsui has exhibited in five continents over the last 50 years. His numerous solo exhibitions include "Wooden Wall Plaques", Asele Art Gallery, Nsukka, Nigeria (1976); "Broken Pots: Sculpture by El Anatsui," Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (1979); "Venovize: Ceramic Sculpture by El Anatsui", Faculty of Art and Design Gallery, Cornwall College, Redruth (1987); Gawu, Oriel Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno, Wales (2003); "Gli", Rice University Art Gallery, Houston (2010); "A Fateful Journey", National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, and The Museum of Modern Art, Hayama (2010); "Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui," Akron Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, New York, Des Moines Art Center, Bass Museum of Art and Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2012-2015) and many other exhibitions in museums, galleries and foundations.
El Anatsui has participated in major group exhibitions including the Venice Biennale (1990 and 2007); the 5th Biennale in Havana (1994); the 1st Johannesburg Biennale (1995); and the biennials of Dakar (2000), Liverpool (2002), Gwangju (2004) and Marrakesh (2016); as well as the 9th Sculpture Biennial of Osaka (1998) and La Triennale, Paris (2012).
Public commissions include Broken Bridge for La Triennale, Paris (Museé Galiera) 2012; Broken Bridge II, 2012-2013, presented by Friends of the High Line, New York; and Tsiatsia - Searching for Connection, 2013 on the façade of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Three Angles is currently installed on the façade of the Carnegie Museum for the 2018 Carnegie International, Pittsburgh.
El Anatsui has received many prestigious awards, including the Praemium Imperiale (2017); the Golden Lion for Life Work at the Venice Biennale (2015); the Audience Award at the 7th Triennale of Small Sculpture in Fellbach; and the Kansai Telecasting Prize at the Osaka Triennale (1995). He has received honorary doctorates from Harvard University and the University of Cape Town (2016) and he was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2014) and the Royal Academy of Art (2013). He won the Prince Claus Award (2009) and the 30th Anniversary Award from the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (2009), among others.
El Anatsui's work is in major public collections in Africa, Asia, North America and Europe, including the Asele Institute (Nimo); the African Studies Gallery of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (Nsukka); The British Museum (London); The National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.); the Centre Pompidou (Paris); the Los Angeles County Museum (Los Angeles); the Des Moines Art Center (Des Moines); the De Young Museum (San Francisco); the Museum Kunstpalast (Dusseldorf); the Setagaya Museum (Tokyo); the National Gallery of Modern Art (Lagos); the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York); the Museum of Modern Art (New York); the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto); the Tate (London); the Nelson-Atkins Museum (Kansas City); the Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth (Bayreuth); the Jordan National Museum (Amman); the Leeum Samsung Museum (Seoul); the Brooklyn Museum (New York); The Broad (Los Angeles); the Indianapolis Museum of Art (Indianapolis); the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston); the Guggenheim Museum (Abu Dhabi) and the Saint Louis Art Museum (Saint Louis).