London’s Royal Academy has a new face for this year’s Summer Exhibition: a vast metallic wall sculpture by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. Unveiled last Monday, it covers the façade above the entrance, replacing the grey stonework and rank of sculpted worthies with a 25-by-15-metre curtain – predominantly gold and silver but erupting in places into contrasting patterns and textures and dotted with red, blue and yellow geometric shapes.
“Tsiatsia – Searching for Connection” evokes the lustre of Byzantine mosaics and the luscious folds of Renaissance drapery, yet also the primary-colour clarity of a Mondrian or El Lissitzky painting. On Monday it shimmered quietly under a dull sky, in need of a burst of sunshine to set the reds and golds ablaze.
Over the past decade Anatsui, 68, has become increasingly well known for his large-scale bottle-top “tapestries”. Earlier in his career he worked with clay, wood and printers’ plates, but always in one medium at a time. The surprise of this piece is that it’s mixed media, with oval pieces of printers’ plates and bits of aluminium roofing sheets, as well as those trademark bottle-tops.
“Tsiatsia” has been 16 months in the making. In his studio in Nsukka, close to the campus of the University of Nigeria, where the artist taught for many years, 30 assistants have flattened thousands of bottle caps garnered from a local distillery and, using copper wire, “stitched” them together, first into small “blocks”, then later into the eight panels that make up the finished work, incorporating the printing plate and roofing sheet along the way.
In many ways, though, the work was only “made” last weekend when the RA’s team, under the artist’s direction, began fixing it to the wall. Two weeks ago, en route to London via Ghana, Anatsui told me over a throaty line from Lagos that he had little idea what the finished product would look like: in his studio there was no way to replicate the 15-metre drop of the RA façade. “I’ve been working on the floor – and on the floor you don’t quite have a feel for what you are doing,” he laughed.
“Tsiatsia” may be slightly smaller than “Broken Bridge II”, which currently graces New York’s High Line, but since 2007, when Anatsui stopped visitors to the Venice Biennale in their tracks with a hanging draped on the Palazzo Fortuny, his scale has become increasingly monumental. So a little guesswork is now a necessary part of the process.
These days, the RA makes increasing use of the courtyard as an additional gallery space. Damien Hirst and the Chapman Brothers have had works installed as part of previous Summer Exhibitions but, for many, the idea of asking an African artist to provide the grand entrance piece to what is generally thought of as a somewhat quaint and very British institution will be a surprise – which is precisely what curator Edith Devaney intended. “It emphasises the fact that anyone from anywhere in the world is invited and encouraged to submit work,” she says. “It’s a short-cut to saying, ‘We’ve always been international.’ We want people to understand that more.”
Anatsui is an adventurous artist. Throughout his career, he has experimented with new forms and materials, and behind the luxuriant folds of the bottle-top hangings or earlier wooden sculptures that he violently scored with a chainsaw, there is a message about colonial politics and Africa’s history. “I use medium and process to make a point,” he explains. “The most memorable ‘slashing’ I can think of is the Berlin conference of the 1880s where the continent was divided between the colonial powers. So when I am working with a process like slashing, I have in mind something which references the history of Africa. But I’m not going to show you a map. It’s abstract and medium-based.”
The youngest child in a large Ghanaian family, Anatsui was raised by his uncle, a Presbyterian minister, his mother having died when he was a baby. On graduating from high school he embarked on a fine arts degree at the Kumasi University of Science and Technology – to the dismay of his relatives, who expected him to do medicine or engineering. He emerged well-versed in European art history, but intent on creating a new kind of African art for the post-colonial era.
In 1975, he followed a former professor to the University of Nigeria, in Nsukka – and, without planning to, has stayed there ever since. But residencies abroad and worldwide commissions have kept him on the move. It is, he says, vital to his creativity. “It’s something to do with the mind travelling. If I stay maybe three months in Nsukka I see a change: the mind settles down. Then you need to move out again. Each time you come back with something of the other place.”
Anatsui was first prompted to work with bottle tops when he came upon a bag of them in the bush and took them back to his studio. “I kept looking at them, trying to figure out what they could be,” he says. “Eventually, I decided to flatten them out and secure them together into a sheet, but I didn’t quite get to the colour. If you see the first piece I did [“Woman’s Cloth” (2001), quickly acquired by the British Museum], my attention was just on form.”
In the 1990s, Anatsui had been making sculpture from wood panels, which (to the irritation of at least one gallerist, who insisted there must be a “right” way) he said could be arranged in any order. He’d arrived at the notion of “non-fixed form” and the bottle-top works enabled him to take the idea further. “It was a form of sculpture that would hang free and could be reshaped at any time.”
He continues to experiment. Recent works such as “Gli (Wall)” (2010) – on show currently in a retrospective of his work in Brooklyn – have seen him pack more and more formats (ways of folding the bottle-tops) into each sculpture. The RA commission has allowed him to play with other media and with colour – the bright roofing sheets take him beyond the limited palette of the bottle tops.
“I have been doing some trials,” he says. “I might now try to bring together three or four of these elements that I have worked with solely in the past to see what dialogue they can generate.” As usual, Anatsui is moving on. Catch his progress at the Summer Exhibition – if possible on a day with sunshine.
The Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy from June 10 to August 18,www.royalacademy.org.uk