Showing art can be a load of rubbish

Ghanian artist El Anatsui's contemporary sculptures give new life to today's mass of waste


How are Africans seen by the rest of the world? Often as victims of tragedy, requiring our pity and charity, as I discovered when I showed a class of students a photo of the respected Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. The picture — in the catalog for his exhibition now on at the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama — shows the artist in a short-sleeved shirt with his hands quite out of sight behind his back. Flippantly, I told my students that he had no arms. Despite the obvious absurdity of my statement, the whole class readily believed this and were even surprised when, moments later, I revealed the truth.

My students are not to be blamed. They have been bombarded with images of famine, war and disease in Africa, and endless reports of brutal murders, rapes and mutilations. The idea of an armless African artist must have seemed all too plausible.

However, if you visit the exhibition “A Fateful Journey: Africa in the Works of El Anatsui” expecting to patronize Africa with pity, you will be surprised. Anatsui cuts anything but a pathetic figure.

In person, the 65-year-old artist emits the aura of a practically-minded businessman, combined with just a hint of a good-natured charlatan.

He’s not a victim; he seems to be the one in control, able to take advantage of the weaknesses and gullibility of others. This impression is underlined by the basic facts of his art: pieces made from different kinds of garbage — worn-out wooden mortars, bottle tops, discarded aluminum, et cetera — sold to buyers in the developed world for high prices.

The notion of an African artist selling artworks literally made from junk to affluent foreigners can’t help invoking the suspicion of a cunning character able to cash in on others’ feelings of guilt about Africa and the declining environment, which are common to the ethically aware. B ut by recycling garbage as art, it can be claimed that Anatsui is making a point about consumerism and waste. And the fact that he employs as many as 30 assistants at his workshop in Nigeria means that he is better value than many of the charities and NGOs that claim to make grassroots differences in Africa. So, does the artist think that these factors have played a role in his success?

“Yes, but I don’t think that is at the back of my mind,” he replies. “But, yes, that’s what I do. However, my idea is to transform things, to give them a new lease of life. In Japan, you recycle and bring it back to the same use, but in Africa we turn it into something else.”

Just as people in the developed world are always ready to see Africans as charity cases, so art critics strain to read deep, political messages into the work of African artists. The perfect “African artist” in this sense is someone like the Mozambican Goncalo Armando Mabunda, whose “Chair of the African King,” a chair made out of Kalashnikov automatic rifles from that country’s civil war, lends itself perfectly to the outpourings of academics and curators from developed countries keen to show their flagrant concern.

In a similar way, Anatsui’s early wood sculptures, seared with burn marks — among several other forms of decoration — have been cast as a reference to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which involved branding and in which the slaves were sometimes euphemistically called “human lumber.” This is all very pat and plausible in a neat curatorial essay, but it is something that the artist himself is oddly silent about. Instead, he chooses to see his wood sculptures, like those made from old mortars, as having a more universal message.

“Mortars are important to me because they represent the human being in the sense that, when they are new and young, they are put to a lot of uses, but when they are old and broken they are discarded,” he says. “When I find them in the broken state and discarded, I kind of raise them up and give them a new lease of life.”

The more you see of Anatsui’s work, the less it appears that his pieces are about the “plight of Africa” and the posturing of the visibly concerned. Do we see Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” as a comment on the political instability of 16th-century Italy or Turner’s canvases as symptomatic of the horrors of the Industrial Revolution? Hardly. So why should so much African art be cast in such a light?

What emerges at this exhibition is the artist’s keen sense of beauty and his belief in the transformative magic that arises from putting old things to new uses. Nothing extols this better than his large “garbage tapestries.” Meticulously constructed from thousands of small parts — bottle caps, bits of aluminum, copper and foil — by his team of industrious assistants to his instructions, these are large, undulating forms that cover the walls of the museum. The banal grubbiness of the individual components is lost in aesthetically pleasing grand designs.

“I think I’m more of an aesthetic artist than a political one,” Anatsui says, now with both arms fully in view.

“A Fateful Journey: Africa in the works of El Anatsui at The Museum of Modern Art, Hayama runs till March 27; admission ¥1,100; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information visit