The Venice Biennale, one of the most famous international contemporary art exhibitions in the globe, has awarded its highest honor, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, to El Anatsui. The biennale stated that the award “acknowledges not just his recent successes internationally, but also his artistic influence amongst two generations of artists working in West Africa.” The artist indeed has brought West Africa into the forefront with past exhibitions across the world, from Brooklyn to Liverpool. As the first African artist to ever have won this award, Anatsui symbolizes a new era of African art in the international art world.
Anatsui was born in 1944 in Anyako, a small town in the southern part of Ghana’s Keta Lagoon. He began his formal art training at the College of Art, University of Science and Technology in central Ghana. After his studies in the 1970s, he began teaching at the University of Nigeria and became affiliated with the Nsukka group- a group of Nigerian artists who were connected to the university.
Many of Anatsui’s works were influenced by the Nsukka group, such as the incorporation of traditional uli designs with a contemporary twist. Uli designs originate from the Igbo people of Nigeria; these designs are fascinating asymmetrical linear images that are used during community rituals, from marriages to funerals. Thanks to the Nsukka group, many of these traditional styles and drawings still remain alive in the West African art world.
Anatsui’s work also have a recurring theme of West African culture in an international context, seen in his pieces like, Man’s Cloth II, a conglomeration of thousands of drink caps. The artist has stated on this piece: “Drinks played an important role in the relation between Europe and Africa. While engaging in trade, drinks were among items bought. This is like working with history in a sense.” Sewn unto sheets of neckbands, the caps give an old and luxurious feel, similar to the ruby-tones of Middle Eastern tapestries. Man’s Cloth II is one example out of many in which the artist displays his immense talent in transforming objects of the everyday into masterpieces.
El Anatsui’s Golden Lion award achievement is not only a spectacular accomplishment for the artist, but for the entire contemporary African art community. El Anatsui places a name and story in a world in which many artists remain unknown. Most museum visitors are used to seeing traditional African artworks without knowing the name of the artist. However, there seems to be a shift in perspective in the Western art world towards contemporary African art, with recent reports in the growing value of contemporary African pieces.
Giles Peppiatt, the Director of South African and Contemporary African Art of Bonhams auction house has stated in a past interview in Business Insider UK, “In some ways, Africa is the new China when it comes to art…[Africa] is one of our hottest properties on the art block.” Front-runners like El Anatsui are now selling works priced in the millions- and interest is still growing.
This year’s Venice Biennale, titled All The World’s Future, is appropriately named as the biennale has taken large leaps in diversity and inclusion. This year’s biennale has an air of new opportunities, such as having 89 new participating countries like Grenada, Mauritius, Mongolia, republic of Mozambique and Republic of Seychelles.
Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian curator, art critic and educator who is also the curator for this year’s biennale, has highlighted several key points in All The World’s Future and its role in the global art community: “The world before us today exhibits deep divisions and wounds, pronounced inequalities and uncertainties as to the future. Despite the great progress made in knowledge and technology, we are currently negotiating an ‘age of anxiety’…Our aim is to investigate how the tensions of the outside world act on the sensitivities and the vital and expressive energies of artists, on their desires and their inner song.”
All The World’s Future has embraced diverse forms of artistic expression, a value placed upon the biennale since its inception, as well as breaking down boundaries of political, social and cultural differences, allowing growth and visibility of art forms and styles that are not well-known in mainstream Western media.
The art world has certainly changed since the beginning of the Venice Biennale’s 120-year long history and within El Anatsui’s forty-five year professional history. There is a new dawn within the art world- where African artists are known and revered, and African culture is respected and seen in a progressive light.