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Transcript: A Conversation With El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa

>>Lisa Binder: Thank you. Thank you all so very much for coming today. Thanks to Annette for that wonderful introduction, and for inviting us to participate in this public forum today. Professors Anatsui, Okediji and I are honored to speak with you today. I'd like to thank Simone Wicha for all of her generosity and her amazing staff here at the Blanton Museum, it's just been a dream to have the exhibition here. They've all been extremely generous and kind. A special thanks to Annette Carlozzi, Deputy Director for Art and Programs, working with her on this exhibition has been, again, a joy, and it would not have been possible without her. It's due to her professionalism, kindness, and enthusiasm for El and his work that El Anatsui, When I Last Wrote To You About Africa is on view at the Blanton Museum of Art.

Thanks also go to her amazing staff, without which we would not have this exhibition. I'd like to give a special thank you to Aimee Chang, Manager of Public Programs who organized this afternoon here today. James Swan, Head Installer who gave the exhibition a sense of movement and joy that I had always envisioned, it's the first time I'm seeing it as it was absolutely meant to be seen, and he gave the objects room to breathe, and that is such a, such a very important thing for me as curator. I'd also like to thank Jason Mendiola, who organized El's trip from Nigeria, it can often be an arduous trek, but we've gotten him here with safe and sound thanks to Jason. So, wherever you are, Jason, thank you for that as well.

I could not imagine a better venue of El Anatsui's work and I hope when we go through the images today you'll be inspired to go back through the galleries and experience the work in person, in the flesh. There's also two very other important people I'd like thank, Professor Moyo Okediji, who lectures here at the University, and El Anatsui. It is his lifetime of beautiful work that brings us all here today. So, with that, please allow me to properly introduce our guests of honor.

Moyo. Moyo Okediji is Director of the Center of the Arts of Africa and its Diaspora here at the University of Texas, Austin. He's an art historian, an artist, and a curator. He studied fine arts at the University of Ife before proceeding to the University of Benin, where he did an MFA in African Art Criticism, Poetry, and Painting, so he's an artist and a scholar. At the University of Wisconsin Madison, he received his PhD in African Arts and Diaspora of Visual Cultures, and he's apprenticed with several indigenous African artists, working in both sacred and secular mediums, include mat weaving, textile designs, terracotta, shrine painting, and sculpture. After teaching for several years in Nigeria, Professor Okediji relocated to the United States, 1992 and for 10 years he was the Curator of African and Oceanic Arts at the Denver Art Museum, and I'd like to say that this is very much a homecoming for me because I first taught at the University of Colorado and worked at the Denver Art Museum for Professor Okediji, and it is really due to his invitation and intervention that I have this relationship with El and have the wonderful position I do at the Museum for African Art today. So, thank you for that very generous intervention in my career. He's also exhibited, as I mentioned he's an artist, at various places including the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., the Corcoran Center in London, National Museum in Lagos, Nigeria, and he's the author of several books and exhibition catalogs including African Renaissance, Old Forms, New Images in Nigerian Art, and The Shattered Gourd: Yoruba Forms in Twentieth Century American Art, which I believe we worked on a little bit together when I was in Denver. So, I'm honored to have been a part of that.

And now, Professor Anatsui. El Anatsui was born in Ghana in 1944, and earned a Bachelor's Degree in sculpture and a Post Graduate Diploma in Art Education from the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. He's currently Professor of Sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where I believe he very much hopes to retire at the end of this month. We'll see, we'll see if they let him go. So, he's been professor there since 1975, and in the intervening years he's had work that appeared in group exhibitions at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA, the October Gallery in London, the celebrated Africa Remix exhibition that toured to London, Paris, Tokyo, Stockholm, and Johannesburg, which was quite a coup. He's also participated in many biennials including Venice, Havannah, Johannesburg, Wanju, Sharjah, and Prospect 1 in New Orleans. Gawu, a solo show of his metal sculptures, which I hope you've seen in the galleries, or will go see after this talk, has traveled through Europe, North America and Asia. In 2008, he received the Visionaries Artist Award from the Museum of Art and Design in New York. He's a Laureate of the 2009 Prince Claus Award, and his collection -- his work has been collected by institutions internationally, including the British Museum, London, where I first saw his work, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, the Denver Art Museum, thanks to Professor Okediji, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the de Young Museum, and most importantly for us here today, the Blanton Museum in Austin, Texas. So, thank you, Professor, for all of your amazing work.

I'd like to invite you both to come and join me on the stage, and while they do that, I'll just mention that the format for this afternoon's program will be more of a dialogue. We're going to have a, going to have a chat with all of you as part of the conversation. I'm going to moderate, introducing a few questions addressed both to El and Professor Okediji, and we'll talk for about 45 minutes, kind of hash out some ideas that have to do with the show, and with El's work and its legacy in terms of art history. And then the discussion will be followed by the all important question and answer period. I know you have many questions for Professor Anatsui and so we'll make sure that you have plenty of time for those as well.

>>Lisa Binder: This exhibition is a retrospective of your work over the last 40 years, several decades, and it includes works in various media, wood, sculpture, or wood, metal, ceramics, other materials, painting, but some of the earliest pieces that we have in the exhibition are these wooden trays that were produced in Ghana, and I think curatorially speaking, really set the stage for works to come, and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how this idea came to be, how you worked with other people who sort of intervened that these many hands that you like to talk about, having a relationship to your work.

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. Thank you very much. I want to thank everybody here for finding time to come -- well, to listen to the little that I have to say.

[ Laughter ]

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. How did I start with the trays...

>>Lisa Binder: And the couple up here.

>>El Anatsui: When I -- okay.

>>Lisa Binder: Yeah.

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. In art school, which I did at a University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, it happened that the curriculum was skewed, you know, in, towards western art, well, because the school was affiliated with Goldsmith's College London, and most of the staff were from outside a sprinkling of indigenous staff who were also even trained abroad. You know, so there was very little exposure, or no exposure at all to, to whatever you could see and call indigenous art. You know, where taken through all the westerner curriculum in art history and in the studios. Towards the end of the course, I, I and a couple of colleagues decided to really go out and find out something about -- well, something that belongs to us, something that would teach us something about our own artistic heirloom, and incidentally the college happened to be in Kumasi where the National Cultural Centre is located. And we used to go there over weekends too, sit down and listen to music, watch artists painting, printing fabric, weaving fabric, musicians, drumming, and all kinds of things. And over there that I discovered this body of science that were peculiar and were very attractive to me because of the fact that they attempted to encapsulate some ideas we -- I thought were very abstract. You know, well, in, in, in art school where I thought about the Renaissance, and all these others when that was a way of looking at the work which was more visual, you know, but coming across a body of work I thought they were different, and they were approaching things from a different, looking at things from a different perspective. And so I got drawn to them and for five years after I finished art school, I worked with them trying to learn how to draw these and how to -- well, follow the motions that created them. You know, just like an art student in, in the U.S. would have gone to museums, you know, to get acquainted with what happened in art before him or her. I had my own museum material in this symbol, and for -- in order to make things really indigenous, I looked for a ground which was also indigenous, and I incidentally came across these trays that are used by market women in displaying their wares, they put tomatoes and fish, and all that things on the ground trays, and I thought that should be a beautiful way of really -- well, a beautiful means of displaying this by symbols that I'm trying to work with -- they're actually printed on fabric which are worn at funerals. And it's believed that funeral occasions are occasions for reflection upon life itself. So most of the symbols would have something to say about life, or, you know -- and so I worked with this -- well, on the, on the fabric, they would be printed in so many repeats. Yeah, but what I did was to isolate them one by one, put one on a tray and then create, normally in the middle of the tray, and then create an ambience on the bottom of the, of the tray which would, which I thought would help to reinforce its milling.

>>Lisa Binder: Well, that sort of ties in with this next image that I have, which is actually the, one of the title pieces for the exhibition, it's called When I Last Wrote To You About Africa. You often use very poetic titles, if not poetry or references to language, communication, as we just saw with the trays using these adinkra symbols in your work to communicate, but it's not often a very literal communication, it's, it's more about this act of, of exchange between people, and so I wondered if maybe through this title piece you could continue to talk about that relationship between language and communication and that runs through a lot of your work and certainly through the exhibition.

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. Well, being that the source from which I got my, the symbols that inspired me were, were more and more like to say fabric or cloths which communicate, you know, the adinkra cloth is, a cloth which is saying something, and I think there have been other -- well, something which has run through my work so far, you know, and this idea of using text. You know, I came to Nigeria in 1975 after maybe some 5 years in Ghana, and upon arrival, discovered that they also have some many traditions of sign, you know, communication, you know, among the Igbo among the, among the Yoruba among the Ibibio, and so and so forth, and after that I discovered that there are so many of such traditions in other parts of Africa, you know, and at -- by that time to honor -- in the university I remember that I read somewhere claims that Africa did not have a writing tradition, and so coming across all these body of, of, you know, traditions which were aimed at communication, I thought that I should do a work which would say something about it. So, this, this work, which happens to be the title work for the exhibition took root from that time. You know, and it consists of signs that I drew from all these traditions the Uli is there, and Nisibidi there, adinkra is there, and some other, plus some that I created myself because after so many years of working with these, I thought I should be able to create my own signs as well. And, and, and all these are in the, in that later, which I wrote about Africa.

>>Moyo Okediji: El's work speaks in the language of poetry, and this language of course is one that combines music with proverbs, so that the -- each letter is layered in such a way that what the individual takes to the work becomes immensely amplified and rewarded just through the personal experience of the individual, too. But one of the fascinating things that I see actually in El's work is the balance of probably even the, the tension between the finished product and the creative process, and if you saw the process through which some of these incredibly beautiful pieces are created, you'd be amazed at the seeming contradiction. I, I saw one video once, I think it was made by the Smithsonian in which you pressed this chainsaw into the body of the wood and lacerated it, lacerated it, and while wearing this mask, and the, the entire room itself looked kind of darkish. And then as the chainsaw began to scream, it seems as if the wood itself is yelling back, and then as if that violence wasn't enough, you grab a blowtorch and began to now burn into the body of this wood. But it's fascinating that as you did this, the, the, the work began to emerge into this incredibly beautiful, beautiful object, so there's this almost tension between the creative process itself and, and the finished work. Do you want to address that?

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. The processes that I use, especially when I work with fir, with wood, as you mentioned, were those of violence, you know, violence inflicted a tool which was meant for violence. You know, the chainsaw on wood is the height of violence, and, and not only that, the fire that I used, you know, now the chainsaw, I kind of discovered, or decided to use as an art tool. I've used it previously, just to log wood, you know, but I went to a, an artist colony, long ago, I think 1980, or so. No, 1970, late '70s, in, in Massachusetts, and, and there while in trying to -- well, I used chainsaw to log wood and brought it to the, to my studio and, and in trying to do some photo work with it, I discovered that well, it has a language, it has its own language, and language which is characterized by the violence and roughness and, and dictatorial tendency, you know. And so I decided to -- when I went back, I decided to -- now explore it, and for about 14 to -- well, I still work with but, but intensely I worked with it for about 14, 15 years, you know, creating pieces that had so many allusions, allusions to so many things including the history of Africa, you know, more especially the, the conference that were held in Berlin in 18 something, the late, late 1800s, which the continent of Africa was put on a table and then shared. You know, I thought that what I was doing with the chainsaw was trying to live those moments, you know, of tearing, you know, of something into bits and pieces. You know, so I worked with that for quite some time, you know, before changing to the current media that I work with.

>>Lisa Binder: Well, I think, I think the act of using the chainsaw brings us to this point where I wanted to talk about the lament of chance in your work, it's, it's a very difficult to control, even though I've seen you use almost like a paintbrush, or drawing, but it's, it's jagged, it's rough, it's -- you never quite know what's going to happen and as you say, things are often carved into pieces, or you carve pieces of things that eventually become a whole piece, and so I wanted to follow through on this and talk a little bit about the element of chance in your work. I have a picture of Digital River behind us where you used ceramic, but you often have pieces of things that come together and can be rearranged to be something new each and every time. Also, going back to thinking about the wood pieces, I have Coins on Grandma's Cloth up behind you where you used not only the chainsaw, but a router, the, the wood slats, and so I think it would be interesting to talk about how important this element of chance is in your work. And then we'll move to talking about the more recent bottle top pieces, which really take that element to a whole new level, I think.

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. I think the element of chance had been something that had been lurking in my work right when I was working with the chainsaw and other power tools. With the chainsaw, I would work in slats, which would be put together into a composition, and I would originally put numbers behind, but that was only an initial proposition. The idea is that anybody who wants to display it has the freedom to ignore those numbers and, and use its own sequence, you know, and this works, the slats were so free that he could do so many things with them, apart from changing the order, or rearranging them, you could do so many things by shifting them vertically and horizontally, you know. And even playing with the intervals, you know, you could separate them wider and then close them, and, you know, so many things were possible with them. And it began to appear to me that I was thinking about the artwork as something which is life itself, life is not something which is cut and dried, it is something which is always in a state of flux. You always, you don't know what each day is going to bring, and I don't know who is going to be closest friend today, or tomorrow, you know, all these things keep changing. And I thought that my artwork should be something which reflects this fact.

>>Lisa Binder: Now, a perfect example of this is the piece in The Blanton here, I thought you could also comment about how the bottle top pieces have this ability to change each and every time, and how that piece is installed here. And, and that, that ability to move as well, the element of chance in these works as well.

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. With the -- from the wood, I now came on to the metal pieces that had several elements linked together by wire, creating a form which is very free, and, you know, like, like, like fabric, you know, that you can do anything, you can drape in any way. You know, the results that there is no time that any one of the them would be displayed in three different places and then they'll have the same format. You know, capable of coming small, contracting small, and expanding, you know, fully. And so many -- and capable of being displayed in so many ways, they could be on the floor, they could be on walls, they could be on, on hedges, as I've done in some instances, and so on and so forth.

>>Lisa Binder: Speaking of which, I have some pictures of this piece being made in Nigeria so people can see the mobility and movement of, of the piece. Do you remember this?

>>El Anatsui: Oh yeah.

>>Lisa Binder: And you were talking about having it over, over a hedge, he was just mentioning the ability of it to move, but this is before it has any rumples and wrinkles on it, and... Yeah.

>>Moyo Okediji: I think it brings in the element of performance into the composition itself and the performance that's not just with the finished work, but right from the moment of inspiration when the artist begins to conceive the work itself. And it continues through the creative process, and doesn't stop until the work itself is consumed by the audience. But the, the concept of performance also enables even the audience to be part of this process. And that reminds me of some anthropological methodology of Participant Observer, in which there isn't this separation between the maker, and the viewer of the object. And, and I think it also brings in even the element of musicality, and it says that if there's a musical piece written, it can be performed in different ways by different artists. And if, for instance, this museum, were to -- God forbid -- sell this object, or loan it to, to some other museum, it could be totally arranged in a totally different way that would present it very, very different kind of experience. And El is a musician, and do you want to tell the story of how you find out he's a musician?

>>Lisa Binder: Wow. You are putting me on the spot, but I'd love to, it's one of my favorite stories. So, El and I were hanging out in New York and I found out it was his birthday, and this was when Fela was still on broadway, it was several months ago. And I thought, oh, I'm going to take him to see Fela, it will be this great, you know, Nigerian connection night, we'll have music and he'll be excited and I was very proud of myself. So we went to see it and any of you who have seen Fela on Broadway, or as it's going through its tour, or have been to the Fela Shrine in Nigeria, which I've had the great luck to do. You know, it's all about movement and dance, and very much an experiential moment. So we're there, El and I, clapping away, and after it was over I, I said, El, wasn't that, you know, greatest birthday present I got to show you Fela. And he said, yeah, not as good as he was, you know, in person. And I said, in person? And he said, yeah, well, you know, my band used to open for him when he would tour in Africa. And I was so embarrassed and that's, that's when I first learned he was in a band called the Tech 10, [assumed spelling] which really fits along with what you're saying, there's sort of a -- I hate to, you know, quote jazz if that's not an influence of yours, but it does have a very jazz-like element to it, the ability to always move and sort of riff upon its location in any different environment, and be experienced differently by, by each person that sees it. Is that -- am I, am I on to something here? Or am I way off course?

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Okay.

[ Laughter ]

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. I actually played trumpet in a university band in my school days and, well, we had a, a music director who was an American, you know, [inaudible] and, and he was taking us through jazz, you know, we're playing tunes like Stomping at the Savoy and Take the A Train and, you know, such stuff. And, and one day, band leader came and regaled us with music from a very talented young musician from Nigeria, and he happened to have stepped the music when he had it on the radio, and played it to us, and we thought, wow, this is, this is something. You know, and that happened to be Fela, starting out his career, you know. He started with High Life, you know, but the High Life was different from any High Life you ever you heard. It had a jazz edge to it, you know, and so we started follow his career, and not too long after that introduction, Fela happened to come physically to Ghana on a tour, and it was brought to the university and we had the opportunity of meeting him, and during his performance, our band was allowed to play during the recess, you know. And, and I played for last trumpet. He was a trumpeter before he switched on to...

>>Lisa Binder: I didn't know that part of the story.

>>El Anatsui: Yeah.

>>Lisa Binder: It just gets bigger every time.

>>El Anatsui: Before he...

[ Laughter ]

>>El Anatsui: Before he switched on to saxophone. You know, so he's a musician who is very close to my heart and if I tell people that one of my reasons for having stayed in Nigeria all this while was that you had someone like Fela in Lagos, six hours away, you know, that he could travel to go and listen to. You know, we followed his career and saw how his music changed in form first, and then later on, his lyrics became more, quite more inside, you know, and became more [inaudible] social, you know, too. So, that's it about music in my...

>>Moyo Okediji: When he talks about high life, he probably, I'm sure not every know what high life is.

>>El Anatsui: No.

>>Moyo Okediji: High life is West African Musical Forum that is quite hybrid, it combines elements of R&B with Calypso music from the Caribbean with elements of Reggae music, as well as West African drumming, and rhythm. And even though it is found throughout West Africa, its home, its core actually is in Ghana, which is his homeland, and there are so many credible High Life musicians in, in Ghana. And one sees that element of musicality of the improvisation of the High Life musician in, in El's work.

>>Lisa Binder: I, I absolutely agree. And I think, I think one of the things -- now that we're talking about music, that I, I think connects it, it is also a language, and it's also a way of communicating across cultures, and I find this to be a really important part of your work. I have a slide up here of Opening Market, which I think speaks very eloquently about the relationship between cultures and what we consume, musically, visually, linguistically, and so I thought maybe this would be a good time to talk about how that's important to your work as well, the connections between people, between individuals, communities, global cultures, how important this is for you in, in ways that you work.

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. Not only connections between people, but the way people relate to objects, you know, like the bottle caps, like this, and so many other things that I work, but there came a point in time that I got interested in studying things that people have put to use, things that people have employed in doing some other things, you know. Like this empty tins that have been repurposed you know, into boxes, you know, that -- well, when I was a kid, we used to -- yeah, we used bigger versions of that kind of box. You know, painted on the back, in black and red, you know, for traveling, or while going to high school, you, you pack your things in it, and, and went to school with it. So, I was grandly surprised when as an adult, I saw a miniature version of that, you know, taking me so many ways back -- so many years back to, to when I was in a kid, and I was curious, you know, to know what those boxes were still being used for. And I was told they are trinket boxes, you know, and being trinket boxes they are small in size, and when I opened, I saw that -- the one I opened was the empty tin of Ovaltine, you know. And, and I looked for the tinkers who produced these things, and discovered I could use almost anything, all the produces that you can find in a market. You know, and I decided to commission them to produce these boxes for me, and when they did they produce them I saw the various products that displayed in them, you know, that's the market and then back of them, they painted them black and red. You know, and I think these should have something of Islamic origin because the red is a crescent, the crescent moon. Yeah, but I don't know where it came from when we, when we used these as, as kids, and up to today, I don't know where I, I should think it should have an Islamic origin. Now, the title came about when I went to Nsukka market to look for more produce because I needed more, you know, and I saw a flask made in, I think Japan for the U.K. Nsukka market, you know. And so many other products and I it began to occur to me that this is something like an open market, a good made for the European Union is being sold there, and so on and so forth. So the idea of Open Market, Opening Market came in an open market to can refer to so many things because Africa is a place that has received things from so many parts of the world, not only goods, but ideologies and, you know, even education and all the things, you know, they came from all parts of the, of the world. So, it's, to me, an Open Market.

>>Lisa Binder: Well, I think, I think that's interesting you're talking about different markets and relationships with other cultures that you find in Nsukka, but you have traveled quite far and wide yourself, and experienced other cultures, and, and many different ways, especially for artists in residency programs. I think that's a big part of your work as well that has influenced a number of projects, and so we can talk a little bit about Akua's Surviving Children, or some of the other projects you've done on different residencies, and how you also work with objects you find in the environment when you're traveling on these residency programs.

>>El Anatsui: Okay. Akua's Surviving Children is, it's, it's in the show.

>>Lisa Binder: Yes. It's in the show.

>>El Anatsui: It's, it's made from driftwood, you know, that I collected on the, on the beach in Denmark. Is it Denmark? Yeah, Denmark. And this is the story behind it. I was invited by the Danish government to come and do a work in response to, I think they were celebrating 200 years of abolition of slavery, and they happen to have done their slavery project in the Gold Coast, which is now Ghana, where I come from. And so they look for Ghanian artist, and I was invited, and I was taken there and given a blank sheet to just create anything. And they took to me to so many places that, that the thought would be okay, or ideal for me to work and they weren't, they didn't quite strike any chord in me until finally somebody asked, have you taken him to the Hammermill? So, following that was taken to the Hammermill which happens to be a forge, a forge that was used in making nozzles for guns. You know, and anybody, anybody my age in West Africa would know about Dane guns. Yeah, Dane guns. So the idea came, so this is where Dane guns were made which were used in slave raids in Africa. Well, I said I'm going to work here in the forge. I didn't have any idea about, about blacksmithing or any such thing, but, but I knew that there would be something, so -- elements that I could use in the forge, you know, to create something. And the forge happened to be very close to the sea, that evening when I was going home, I was standing by the shore for the train to come and I saw down, down by the coast, a log. So I went down I raised it and saw how the elements of nature have worked on this, because this tree had been tossed into the -- well, that had been used maybe as mooring or something, it had something to do with the sea. So it had been exposed to all the elements, water, air, what have you. And finally, it had been washed ashore. And I thought that was a good metaphor for, you know, the idea of tearing people from land and taking them to a strange environment and finally they are coming back to land. You know, and the intervention that I did on them with the, you know, forge was to use the, the fire of the forge to burn little pieces that I attached to the standing ones, you know, so they became something like humanoid forms. And the idea of the fire was to -- well, if this had been exposed to the, the elements of water and air, I thought fire was the last one that they needed in order to complete a cycle, you know. So, their faces are burned black in order to, you know, integrate them into society. So that's how Akua's Surviving Children came about. And the name, Akua, Akua's Child. Akuaba. But if anybody knows about Akuaba, the Akuaba doll, the fertility doll, which, well, it's common in Akan part of Ghana, and I'm sure some people have known about it, the akua'ba doll which has a round head and then the arms are this way, and then a slim torso. Yeah. I was thinking if the fertility doll is called Akua, akua'ba, Akua's Child then I was thinking about a womb that is so fertile as to produce so many children that after so many have been taken away, they are still some more left.

>>Moyo Okediji: I was just thinking about how El's work has really changed the visual language of contemporary African art in many ways because one of the major paradigms for working in contemporary African art is, is to look from elements of traditional African art and combine that with the contemporary, but with El's intervention, this seems to have changed. A lot of the artists that are now growing up, are not so much interested in these syntheses of the past and the present, they now seem to be more interested in exploring environmentally conscious art, that is looking for found objects, and using the found objects in new environments, and I wonder how you want to react to the works of these artists who are now influenced by your work.

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. I always believed in the, in the element of change, you know. I don't think that things should -- well, like, like my works, you know, they shouldn't be the same thing any time you see them. They, they should be changing, you know. And as a teacher, I've always given my students things which contain challenges, and if an, a project doesn't have challenge then I wouldn't give it to them, you know. And I thought that one of the best challenges I can give to students is to have them face a new medium. A medium that they are not used to, because when they are used to a medium, their tendency would be that as soon as you see it, you start doing the usual thing with it. But if the medium is new, then it will stop you in your tracks and you got to see their own thing, and work out what precisely to do with it and in the process, you are developing a language, you know. Now, it is not that the use of found objects, object from the environment is new to African -- well, art produced in the African Continent, you know. I think it's something that has been there right from the beginning. We only had an interregnum of -- well, of -- well, we've only had a, the incidents of art schools coming in from the west, you know, interrupting this and instituting in its place the use of the so-called traditional materials. Like when I was in art school where handling plaster of Paris and such stuff which didn't have any relationship, you know, to the environment, it wasn't produced there, and, and so on and so forth. And I thought that in traditional African art, which you are to know about later on, they would use things that were occurring in the environment, you know. They would combine things like wood and, and skin, and so on and so forth, feathers, and, you know, in other words they source their material or their media arrived from around them, you know. And we've had a, a long period of art schools having introduced this idea which took us rather back. And so what I think I'm trying to do, me and some colleagues are trying to do is to kind of bring back this kind of attitude. Attitude that in the past would lead artists to work with these unusual materials. You know, so, yeah. I think the, the students of mine who are working in that line are, are doing great work, and I can see the future for them kind of helping to enrich our lives.

>>Lisa Binder: I think, I think that's one of the great legacies that you have given to the students in Nigeria, but throughout the world. I've had the great pleasure to know some of your students and how they've taken this lesson that you've given them and applied it to their work. People often ask me if their work looks like yours, and I say, it doesn't -- it's not that it looks like it, but they've really taken like the master has taught them in terms of looking around and using things in your environment that might be bottle caps, or it might be pieces of wood. But to take them -- and I remember you said to Bright it was, that if you have something as simple as a piece of wood, bring them together en masse. Make it big. Make it so that when someone stands in front of it, they are dizzy, and I thought that was such a lesson, that's such an instruction for the students to learn how to take a couple of bottle caps, and then there's a couple hundred bottle caps, and there's thousands of bottle caps, and then it's this monument to the life around you. I remember the piece we built with just logs that we piled high and you painted the ends of them, so taking something very simple and, and giving it this stature I think is really one of the great legacies of your teaching, and, and I do look forward to seeing some exhibitions of work by Nnenna Okore and Bright Eke and some of your, your students have really listened to the master. And I know that's important on a teaching campus to really listen to what your professors are telling you and take that and, and make it something that, that's yours and, and take it out into the world in a new way, which, which fits in with your idea of change as well. Take it and make it your own, and make it new.

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. I was very happy when a student of mine came for his graduate work and I asked him what he wants to, and he said he wants to work with water, you know, sculpture. I say, okay.

[ Laughter ]

>>El Anatsui: And, and I think today he's one of the best known of my students. He's got invitations to almost every place, you know, that has something to do with, with the environment, you know. Yeah, because he set himself that task of going into a medium which is unusual, and which has challenges, you know. Yeah.

>>Lisa Binder: Well, on that note, should we be students ourselves of, of Professor Anatsui and ask him some questions? Is this a good time to do that? All right.

[ Question (not on audio): ] What was it like as a young man growing up in Ghana?

>>El Anatsui: I happen to grew up at a time that my country became -- I was about teenage when my country became independent, and the idea of independence brought in this sense of euphoria and, well, we were free, and therefore were going to do something great, you know. And one of the first things that we did was, okay, colonialism cover your face with some veil, and now the veil is, is removed. What do you do? You look around and, and see -- so, in most parts of Africa at that time, there were movements -- well, maybe syndromes of going back to look at some of the things that were there before the colonial project started, and trying to learn things from the past. In Ghana I remember we had a sankofa syndrome, sankofa means go back and peek. You know, go back and peek. It's, it's a sense of -- well, something like introducing the sense of historicity, you know, into one's life. You don't just keep moving forward, but go back and look at what you did in the past and try to use it as a way of moving forward. And when I came to Nigeria to -- we had a, they had a, I think you knew about it, [inaudible] rebels. They were people who were, rebelled against the western way of teaching art and opened up, you know, vistas to people to look more at indigenous art forms, and one of the very common ones in the Uli which happens to be championed by Uche Okeke who happens to be the, the chair of the school that I went to, when I went to Nigeria. So, me coming from the Sankofa and then he coming from the Uli you know, schools, you know, found it easy to move along.

[ Question (not on audio): ] How do you decide on names for your work?

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. I have this habit of naming some works long, long, long after they've been

[Laughter] [inaudible]

>>El Anatsui: Most of the time you don't understand what you've done, and it, it takes some time, you know, the intervention of time, you know, by bring, bring to you some, probably understanding of -- yeah, when I did that work, I, incidentally, it's a two sided piece that the back says something else, and the front says something.

>>Lisa Binder: That's the back, yeah?

>>El Anatsui: That is the back, part of the back, yeah.

>>Lisa Binder: And that was the front.

>>El Anatsui: And that was the front. And I saw that -- well, looking at it I have a feeling that what is happening is seepage, you know, very a seepage happening there. So I only two days ago, I went. Yeah, it gave me the title Seepage. So it's no, it's no longer untitled.

[ Background noise ]

>>Lisa Binder: Which I think is an, it's a part of your process as you said, you often give a title later on and, and that for me, it also has to do with this element of chance and play and you never quite know what's going to happen.

>>Moyo Okediji: Would you be open to the display of the back itself?

>>El Anatsui: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I, I did tell, yeah. When I went to the museum, yeah, I told, I told, I remember, that it [inaudible] so you could occasionally show the back, and people would, people would think you bought a new work.

[ Laughter ]

[ Question (not on audio): ] Do you title all of your pieces in English? If so, why?

>>El Anatsui: No, they are not always in English. There have been several works that I titled in my language, but my, my language is a very peculiar one. It, it is tonal like, like most African languages are tonal. The same word, you know, different inflections mean so many different things. You know, you can have a word, same spelling. If you don't tone mark it, it can mean -- yeah, well, when you tone mark it, then it means a particular thing, and I -- my language, we don't tone mark it. I know that in Yoruba you tone mark, and Igbo has plenty of tone marks, you know, so, so theirs, theirs is more precise than my language. My language just leave it open. So, so that, that element of the indeterminate makes it attractive to me, to use it for titling, or for, for titles so that it can mean so many things.

>>Moyo Okediji: A good example would be say agbòn in my language; agbón would be wasp, and àgbòn would be chin. And àgbon would be coconuts. And agbòn would be basket, and so on and so forth.

[ Laughter ]

>>Lisa Binder: This is why I don't speak Yoruba. My Cleveland tongue can't do it.

[ Question (not on audio): ] Do you start with an image in your head and make the piece resemble it, or does the idea change as you work?

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. This, this process -- when I worked with chainsaw, machines are fast and you have to think about what you want to do before you start them, but with, with this, which is manual and laborious and slow, I don't do any drawing any longer. You know, I start with a portion and then keep growing. You know, because if something is spread around many, many days or months, you know, so it's an organic kind of thing.

[ Question (not on audio): ] Do you have people help you in the creation of these pieces?

>>El Anatsui: Yes. I have many people, many people who assist me. Where I work, there are a lot of young chaps who are just out of high school, and in Nigeria university places are very limited and there is a big competition for them. You've got to, you know, take exams, entrance exams, you know, and do well to get in there. And most high school [inaudible] will spend two or three years taking this exam before they finally make it and so these young chaps living in the vicinity of my studio come in to help me, you know, whilst preparing for this exam. And on a good day, I could have like 30 people all working, you know. And with that, what would have taken maybe years, this probably with me alone, you'd be talking about a year or more. You know, but with this then you divide it by 30.

[ Question (not on audio): ] Do you direct the workers or are they allowed to take creative freedoms?

>>El Anatsui: They are directed -- I could come in and say, okay, now let's have these in black, let's use black throughout, maybe I think this work started from the, from the middle, the black portion there. And after some period of going in with the black, and said, okay, let's mix it with something. So it turns out into a lighter color, and finally, say, okay, let's use a, the silver. The silver at the back of the, of the bottle cap, the inside of the bottle cap. You know, the outside would have a, would have the colors, but inside is so, so -- we've had the freedom to use all those colors. So that's how it grows.

[ Question (not on audio): ] With so many little pieces and intricacies in your work, does movement from gallery to gallery affect the integrity of the pieces?

>>El Anatsui: I've had an occasion of having these displayed -- in Venice, the work was outside, you know, Venice is a lot of salt and wind and, you know, it was outside for six months, and when it came back, I saw that the sun, the salt, and everything had affected it. And, to me, that was a very beautiful discovery because the colors that were reduced, it was reduced to were very, very appealing. You know, the patina of age. Yeah. It came with them so I now use that. I now spread some of the bottle caps in the sun, so that it can get bleached. You know, and give them that old look. Yeah. The same applies to tearing and all those things, tears, OK, they are welcome. You can patch them any way if you want, but, but left to me, I wouldn't patch them. You know, when you have -- well, even as a human being, you, you have to age and things have to change, or become dysfunctional about you, and so on and so forth. And you have to learn to live with them. Yeah. This is some of the fights that I've had with museum people, they want things to stay that way throughout, you know. And I say, no, leave the, leave the things to grow old.

[ Question (not on audio): ] Was the title Seepage given to this piece during your visit to Austin?

>>Lisa Binder: It was indeed given during this visit to Austin, and it's Seepage, as if there was -- this is probably not the most beautiful analogy, but I was thinking of some sort of like oil or some sort of dark liquid that you set a cloth on and it starts to seeps through and makes a beautiful pattern, that's kind of the, the visual I'm getting from this. Is that right connection? So, Seepage.

[ Question (not on audio): ] Are you visually influenced by Kente cloth?

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. The first two pieces of these I made. I, I titled them Man's Cloth, and Woman's Cloth, that's taking the idea from, from the Kente tradition. You know, but then if you go beyond that, you see that the work which are addressing, you know, gender issues, you know, and then they are not limited to the idea of Kente. Yeah. I've -- I'm from a Kente weaving tradition. You know, that wasn't what I've been working with, it's, it's by -- well, it's by coincidence that the color schemes of the bottle caps, which I didn't give the caps anyway, that's how I found them. The color schemes happened to be those of Kente cloth. You know, so my work is not limited, it has allusions to Kente, but it's not limited to Kente. If you try to look beyond Kente then you might be able to get something more out of...

>>Moyo Okediji I would actually say that while we were acquiring his work at the Denver Art Museum, one of the ways through which I presented the work to the board members who basically had a western education was to highlight ideas of abstract expressionism, of color field painting, of even pop art, as part of the language for which he is drawing, in addition, of course, to indigenous African art.

[ Question (not on audio): ] Which comes first, the idea or the material?

>>El Anatsui: I think, I think the, the -- well, starting from the idea you tend to close yourself in, you know, and, and you wouldn't look anywhere else you want to focus on it, and, and it becomes a problem, you know, limits you. And maybe if you spend many, many, many years you could it get it back. You don't have many years to live, and...

[Laughter] [ Inaudible ] working with an idea sometimes you limit yourself to the idea…

>>El Anatsui: Yeah. Yeah that what was what I find out. Yeah. And, so I walk straight with the, the material or the process.

[ Question (not on audio): ] Are you influenced by Egungun or other masquerade customs?

>>El Anatsui: What I can say to do that is just that I go about the collective unconscious you know, my people, the [inaudible] in their migration history passed through Yoruba land, you know, Ketu and all these places resonating there in the history of my people, and I think that the collective unconscious might be at work, or [inaudible] in this case, you know, it's not something that I personally experienced, or a little bit, but my people have experienced it, and therefore it's part of my consciousness. You know, and so I think that it's likely that such influences are there.

>>Lisa Binder: Well, good. I think that's a great place to end on the influence of Africa, and El's work in our lives. Thank you so much for coming.

[ Applause ]