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Monday, 15 June 2015

Art icon El Anatsui, a humble man – Miko

By Andrew Mulenga

Artist and Zambia Open University (ZAOU) lecturer William Miko has just returned from a trailblazing trip to Europe where he was invited to officially open a solo exhibition by internationally acclaimed Ghanaian sculptor El Antasui.

Zambian visual artist and academic William Miko (r) and
Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui (l) break into laughter during
an interview at the opening of the latter’s exhibition in Norway
Anatsui, 71, who was recently bestowed with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement by the zenith of global arts events, the Venice Biennale, was also present for the opening on 23 May at the Kunstbanken Art Centre in Hamar, Norway.

Preferring non-European-based artists or curators, project manager Aase Marie Brun states they invited Miko to be the key moderator at the opening and to oversee the question and answer session because the centre decided on someone who lives in the same reality with a deeper understanding of the art world seeing that both Miko and Anatsui live and work on the African continent. Miko was also on hand before the opening to take part in the mounting process of the exhibition.

A smaller work by the artist made of discarded
bottle tops, some of this kind sell in excess of US $ 1 million
Anatsui whom Miko describes as being of humble character is perhaps the biggest artist to come out of the African continent to date. His works are on unceasing demand and have been collected by centres, from the British Museum, London to the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the de Young Museum, San Francisco, USA; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi; Osaka Foundation of Culture, Osaka; Museum of Modern Art, New York as well as many other prestigious institutions and some of these individual artworks fetch well above US $1 million – yes you read correctly – more than one million dollars per piece.

Despite his extraordinary success, he is an artist that has gallantly refused to relocate to the west, preferring to remain rooted on the African continent; this is a fact that more than anything else – by these books -- elevates the West African master to the status of an African hero, loyal to the soil.  

Art historian and professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, Sylvester Ogbechie in an essay entitled The Curator as Culture Broker: A Critique of the Curatorial Regime of Okwui Enwezor in the Discourse of Contemporary African Art aptly points out that: “Anatsui’s success positions Africa as a significant locale in the global discourse of contemporary art.” And in 2013, the artist triggered the headline “African contemporary art is hot,” when the Financial Times UK announced that the London auction house Bonhams achieved a record US $850,000 for one of his works.

The same year The Royal Academy of Arts, London, presented him with the prestigious Charles Wollaston Award for his work, and in 2014, he was made an Honorary Royal Academician as well as elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In his formative years, Anatsui was known for using a chain saw to create sculptures through scarring and charring wood, but of late he has become famous for gigantic wall hangings that are made mainly from discarded bottle tops. Some of these are so huge they are able to cover the entire façade of a large building. In appearance most of these works resemble the colourful kente cloth of his native Ghana, and he also incorporates various traditional motifs in his work too.

His biographical note, states that he has had: “ a distinguished forty-year career as both sculptor and teacher – he was Professor of Sculpture and Departmental Head at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka – El Anatsui has addressed a vast range of social, political and historical concerns, and embraced an equally diverse range of media and processes.”
Despite all these lofty accolades, achievements and a remarkable life long career, according to Miko, the artist remains an exceptionally humble man.

“The man, El Anatsui is so humble that you would not pick him out of a crowd. It is his humility that to me is greater than all that he is known for. For example, he exhibits all over the world in highly prestigious spaces but is down to earth and still places humanity at the centre of life,” he says.
Miko explains that for the ongoing show Anatsui’s exhibits were delayed in transit but he was so calm about it and went round comforting everyone that they should not worry all will be well, and indeed the crate arrived in time for the mounting.

“As we were mounting the show, El would go up on the ladder to hammer a nail in the wall or to create a desired fold in the sculpture. The man is 71 years old, who on earth would expect him to do that, but El is El, simple and humorous.

“Even when I suggested we switch three sculptures around from his original plan to suit one challenging space, he just said ‘Yes William you are right, I think I will be asking galleries and museums around the world to invite you from Lusaka to help display these sculptures whenever they are not sure of how to do it, especially if I am not able to go there myself’, and he laughs about it,” he says.

Miko adds that the discussion he coordinated was insightful and both the audience and Anatsui raised pertinent issues that are key for reflection with regards the classification of contemporary art on the African continent and beyond.

 “There was a question from the audience asking whether El as an African artist of his stature felt responsible to represent Africa and its traditions around the world, he just said no. He said he doesn't ascribe to the categorisation of art or artists, art is art regardless of where it’s coming from. If anything the Western canon needs to be on a lookout because there is so much new ways of making art which is coming from places it has since ascribed as the other. Art historians need to open themselves to the new dynamics of what is obtaining in the periphery. Good art can come from anywhere,” recounts Miko.

Nevertheless, Miko’s renewed connectivity to the mainstream and often inaccessible high-level conventions of contemporary global art practice should be commended as it may not just profit himself but may prove beneficial to the ZAOU, his art students and by extension the Zambian art scene that has for a long time been thirsting for a global breakthrough, a real one, not the bantering recently experienced through the embarrassing Imago Mundi book project of which he was also involved. In short, being in Anatsui’s line of sight must surely be a good thing.

Miko also highlights that during the artists talk, Anatsui indicated that he was open to invitations from across the African continent and would be glad to come to Zambia and share his experience if either he or the ZAOU were to extend such an invitation. We can only hope for bigger, better things to come.

Of late, Miko has been on something of an express train. The Anatsui outing was his second trip to Europe this year, he was also there in March during the launch of Borderless Women, an exhibition in Oslo at the Voksenåsen Cultural Centre which featured Miko’s recent works alongside Jamal Ahmed from Bangladesh and Narek Aghajanyan from Armenia – read about this next week -- and no sooner had he returned than he jetted off to Johannesburg as one of the International Adjudicators for the Barclays L'Atelier, one of South Africa's most prestigious art competitions that for the first time in its 30 year history opened to Botswana, Ghana, Kenya and Zambia.

Meanwhile, Miko’s hosts, the Norwegians are not new to collaborating with Zambia, this recent development appears to be a revitalisation of old ties. In 1999, Norway hosted an International Women's Conference whose theme focused on women entrepreneurship and to commemorate the occasion the Kunstbanken Centre held an exhibition of Zambian female artists entitled Women Show the way that featured Agnes Buya Yombwe, Vandita Varjangbhay, Tessie Lombe, Silvia Mwando and Julia Malunga. Would it not be a nice thing to see the Centre host the explosive new crop of female stars such as Nukwase Tembo, Gladys Kalichini, Mulenga Mulenga, Sarah Chibombwe and teenage sensation Alina Mateke who is progressing well in the second year of her BA (Fine Arts) at Armstrong State University in the United States?.

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