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Issue 200

Mae-Ling Lokko on the Art of El Anatsui

‘His work opened a pathway to design for me that no architectural school or practice could’

BY Mae-Ling Jovenes Lokko in Fan Letter | 25 JAN 19

El Anatsui, Kente Rhapsody (in 18 Pieces), 2002, tropical hardwoods and tempera, 1.3 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist, British Museum, London, and October Gallery, London 

‘It’s not recycled.
They are sculptures, not tapestries.
They aren’t woven, they are produced.
This is not textile.’

El Anatsui

In its conceptualization of ‘waste’, the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s work has always been instructive to me. Even before encountering the potent notion of ‘emergy’ or ‘energy memory’ in architecture – a concept that promises to pull the rug from under how we understand energy embodied in buildings today – Anatsui was in full control of the idea of creating value through transformity in his methodology and production infrastructure. The Anatsuian media palette, rooted in everyday objects that form the DNA of domestic African life, celebrates objects that have been used and which have passed through many hands long before being flattened and shaped by those of his assistants. To me, this understanding of transformity – a concept that describes the relationships between the quantity and quality of energy as it is transformed in a system – simultaneously looks inward, to African systems of knowledge and mechanisms of oral history, and outward to notice things that are overlooked or undervalued.

As a young designer from Ghana trying to develop building materials from agricultural waste resources, Anatsui opened a pathway to design for me that arguably no architectural school or practice could. His work embraces the possibility of a design that isn’t driven by tools, but by a collective resourcefulness. It is a design that does not derive its value through a hierarchical, anaesthetic system of materials, but within a material life cycle that begins well before the human act of production and accumulates value through multiple transformations.

I still remember the first time I encountered one of Anatsui’s sculptures while doing research on adinkra goldweights at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is hard not to be stunned into silence by the sight of the soft shimmering of thousands of bottle caps woven with copper wire. Seeing this work in person made me acutely aware that Anatsui’s art has evolved into something unselfconscious; it’s like a woman who is comfortable in the knowledge that every detail of her body is evidence of her beauty. From every vantage point, this assemblage of aluminium caps takes on a second layer of performance when draped on a wall – a freedom Anatsui gives to those who display his work. I returned to the piece again and again, trying to isolate the different threads of his authorship around complex themes activated by his choice of media and production methods.

It was not until I saw one of his earlier wood sculptures, Kente Rhapsody (in 18 Pieces) (2002), that my appreciation of Anatsui’s approach to material achieved a level of clarity. Perhaps, in contrast to the aluminium caps, it is the wood’s absorption of light that fully illuminates his control of colour, scale, relief and intersectionality across the wood grain to narrate a complex story around the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and how the continent has negotiated these colonially imposed, hard-lined boundaries. Despite the individuality of each wooden piece, curved lines move across their grain in a free-flowing manner, reconstituting individuality from within and camouflaging difference at its border. That day at the Met, I was in search of adinkra – a system of ideographs originating from the Akan in Ghana that have proliferated widely. It was my intention to design moulds derived from some set of specific adinkra geometric principles. Yet, through Anatsui, like many others, I have found both a reverence for each material’s memory and the confidence to experimentally design new value systems for material through transformity. 

Mae-Ling Jovenes Lokko is an architectural scientist and director of the Building Sciences Program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, USA. This year, she has projects at Copenhagen Arts Festival, Denmark, and Z33 House for Contemporary Art, Hasselt, Belgium.