The Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, one of Africa’s most influential artists, says he is delighted to be receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale.
“It’s a good feeling to be recognised but at the same time it puts a lot of responsibility on one to make sure that you live up to the award’s expectations,” he told BBC Africa.
“A Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement would tend to give the impression that one is at the end of the road,” he added, laughing.
“It means that there’s a feeling that my practice is maybe at an end, which I don’t think so.”
The 70 year old, who works in Nigeria and Ghana, is getting the award at a ceremony on Saturday on the recommendation of the curator of this year’s exhibition, Okwui Enwezor.
Mr Enwezor is the first African curator of the biennale in its 120-year history.
“El Anatsui is perhaps the most significant living African artist working on the continent today,” the Nigerian wrote.
“The award for which I am recommending him is an important honour to an artist who has contributed immensely to the recognition of contemporary African artists in the global arena.”
‘No role models’
El Anatsui was born in Anyako, Ghana, and trained at the College of Art, University of Science and Technology, in the city of Kumasi.
“At the time I went to art school, any parent would think that his child is crazy if he chose of all disciplines, of all professions, to do art because there wasn’t anything like a role model or a famous artist in the area that I grew up in.”
He said that he decided to become a sculptor because he was already familiar with painting from his secondary school days and wanted to try something new.
“I haven’t regretted making that decision because I think that in sculpture you can subsume all the other areas of art, like painting, because sculpture can also engage with colour.”
As happened with many other African artists of his generation, the artistic training that he received was primarily based on Western art schools.
“Through my art history course we didn’t do anything about African art. In sculpture there was a time that they brought somebody who was African, a practising sculptor… that was the first time there was someone who was part of our culture,” the artist pointed out.
As a result, he decided to think more about his culture and started using local materials to create his works.
Many of his early pieces included wooden trays used by market women.
Through them, he reflected on the use of traditional signs and symbols from the area where he was living.
Later on he started using clay to make pots, according to him, “the most classical shape that the medium clay can make”.
“After clay I came back to wood again, this time exploring the symbolism of power.”
He eventually decided to start experimenting with metal objects, such as cassava graters.
“When they were new they were gleaming, just like youth, and now they’re old and they’re disused and left to rot away, and I decided that the best thing was to give them a new lease of life and a new meaning.”
He believes that when things have been used “they have acquired a lot of history and meaning, and a lot of maybe spiritual energy, as well”.
Several of his best known recent works – which have been displayed in galleries and museums across the world – are huge tapestry-like installations made with bottle tops and deal with themes such as power, migration and the environment.
But El Anatsui points out that his work is not about recycling.
“In fact, I object to people using the word recycle in connection with the way I use my materials because my materials are not recycled, they are given a new life, they are transformed.”
“The bottle caps are no longer going back as bottle caps; they are part of an art work and, being part of an art work they have a higher status… a higher dimension.”