Friday, April 25, 2014

The Broken Pot of Wisdom

By Biko Agozino

'They finally broke the pot of wisdom' (2011), by El Anatsui, 'New World' exhibition, Mount Holyoke College Museum of Arts,  21 January - 8 June, 2014

According to Plato, in his ideal Republic where philosophers should be kings because it is more difficult for kings to become philosophers (democracy being out of the question in Greece as Aristotle also argued), '... the meaner desires of the many are held down by the virtuous desires and wisdom of the few.'

El Anatsui, the Ghanaian Professor of Studio Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, for more than 35 years, debunked the above undemocratic philosophy of government and insisted that wisdom is never a monopoly of the few who have to hold down the masses. He uses the Africa-centered philosophical folklore of Anansi, the trickster, to challenge the Eurocentric idea that any individual can ever set out to collect all the wisdom of the world in a pot to be monopolized by him or her alone. Fortunately for the world, according to the folklore, the pot of wisdom proved too heavy for Anansi to carry up a tree for hiding; it fell and broke into pieces so that the wisdom was broadcast all over the world for all to share. 

Selfie: Viewing and discussing the exhibition with my daughters

Ichie Obinkaram Echewa, award-winning author of I saw the Sky Catch Fire and How Tables Came to Umu Madu, among other acclaimed novels, just reminded me in a phone call that the Igbo variant of the story features the sophist, Mbe the tortoise, who conducted a social survey to collect all the wisdom for hoarding but he ignored the goat because everyone knew that the goat was stupid. Yet, when he was carrying the calabash up the tree to hide it, along came the goat to ask him why he was climbing a tree when everyone knew that the tortoise did not know how to climb and why he chose to carry the calabash in such a clumsy way between his stomach and the tree. That proved that even the goat had some wisdom that was not collected by the sophist who decided to climb down and ask the goat to add his wisdom to the collection. In the process, the calabash fell and smashed and spread the wisdom all over the world.

In his previous discussions with Chika Okeke-Agulu, his former assistant at the University of Nigeria and now a Professor at Princeton University, El Anatsui told him repeatedly that he allows his curators and the viewing public, along with his students and colleagues, to interpret his works with fresh eyes, to hang them as they choose and to reconfigure the shapes according to the space available at any exhibition because he believes that we are all artists, contrary to the elitist assumption that (artistic) wisdom is held down by only a few professional 'artists'.

By using the aluminion tops of liquor bottles that he buys from traders in Nigerian markets to make elaborate colorful sculptures with philosophical messages, El Anatsui is always trying to challenge the viewers of his work to think deeply about what may be regarded as useless materials that form part of our landscape especially when linked together with metal strings as metaphors of the interconnectedness among groups and individuals in society. 

The isolated bottle tops assume new meaning when linked together with other bottle tops of different shapes and colors to create fractal images that suggest strength and diversity in unity. Using the same medium of aluminum bottle tops, he made a golden 'New World Map' with Africa at the center, 'Tiled Flower Garden' that covered much of the floor of the exhibition hall, and 'Alter Ego', all part of his New World Exhibition that subtly critiques the culture of consumptionism and alcoholism worldwide but with special reference to Africa.

As Olu Oguibe, another former student of his and now Professor of Art History and Africana Studies at the University of Connecticut pointed out in a review essay, the metaphor of the broken pot is indicative of resilience rather than mere risk of trash in the work of El Anatsui because the broken pot is not completely useless in African culture. Oguibe says that Anatsui presents a transformation of the materials he works with and does not simply exhibit everyday objects as sculpture unlike the found arts genre of some European artists. Anatsui makes sculpture, not magic or optical tricks.

It can also be argued that the whiskey bottle is actually useless until its top is 'broken' and the contents poured out. Similarly, the 'broken' English of West Africa with which El Anatsui titles some of his works is not indicative of the corruption of English but remains a vibrant testimony to the creative juices of the masses who would proudly say that their pots of wisdom are leaky but insist that 'we go dey patch am' or we will never stop patching the leaks.

Given the WHO warning against alcoholism as a public health hazard, El Anatsui may be indirectly challenging Africans to be cautious about the intoxicating contents of the bottles that have been shipped from Europe to Africa to fuel the slave raids and the continuing genocidal violence across Africa since then perhaps to hold down the 'meaner desires' of the many with the 'wisdom' and profit 'desires' of the few in Plato's ideal monarchical republic. 

To El Anatsui, the more valuable part of the whiskey and rum bottles are the discarded tops that would be melted by artisans to fabricate cutlery. He successfully bids to buy them from unionized traders and, with the help of studio assistants, breaks the tops down further before joining them together to make sheets of colorful fabric-like shapes that become works of art every bit as beautiful as his earlier sculptures made of wood and of clay. It is an artistic breakthrough many decades in the making rather than an 'overnight sensation' as some critics tried to suggest.


Africa has added a feather to its cap with the April election of the artist , El Anatsui, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Academy is one of the US's most prestigious  honorary societies. Members of the 2014 class include winners of  the Nobel Prize, the Wolf Prize , the Pulitzer Prize, the National Medal of the Arts , MacArthur, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships and Grammy, Emmy, Oscar and Tony Awards
The only African besides Anatsui to become a new member  is the Kenyan novelist and English and Comparative Literature scholar, Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Former members include George Washington , Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Graham Bell, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr , Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Laurence Olivier, Mary Leakey and Nelson Mandela.
Last March, Anatsui was appointed "Honorary Academician" of the Royal Academy of Arts. This permits him to affix the title "Hon RA" to his name. The late Nigerian artist, Ben Enwonwu, is the only other African to be conferred with the title "Honorary  Academician" of Britain's most prestigious art body. This was in 1948.
In honouring  El Anatsui, the Academy's President, Christopher Le Brun said :"... this appointment (is) reserved for artists of distinguished  reputation, which marks the respect and admiration  felt by the Members of the Academy for your outstanding services to the Arts" .Current Honorary Academicians include artists such as Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei.
Last November, El Anatsui made the list of the world's most rated people in the  Art World. The list is named "2013 power 100" and is a ranked and definitive guide of the contemporary art world's most powerful artists, curators, collectors, critics and gallerists driving the international contemporary art scene. Those listed are ranked in order of influence in the often invisible structure of today's art world. Anatsui , a new entrant, is the only African artist to make the list so far.
El Anatsui's sculptural work can be found in scores of private collections globally and continentally, and in the permanent collections of more than 40 major international museums; 13 of America's  leading museums included. Some of these are The Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y; The National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washignton ,D.C; and The Museum for Modern Art, N.Y. Other public collections include Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle; The British Museum, London ; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; Setagaya  Art Museum, Tokyo; Jordan National Gallery of Arts , Amman; The World Bank  Art Collection , Washington ,D.C; UNAIDS  Geneva ; Ghana National Art Collection, Accra; and The National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos. Anatsui's work, which is now accepted globally as a "hard-to-categorise" art form, has featured more than once at The Venice Biennale , the most prestigious  event in the international art calendar. He has exhibited on six continents.
El Anatsui, who is the subject of numerous reviews, articles, art books, biographies, videos and films, was, until 2011 when he retired, Professor of Sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and a former Head of Department of Fine & Applied Arts.  Professor Anatsui , who is Ghanaian, has lived and worked in Nigeria since 1975. He has won various honours and prizes in Italy, Japan, Germany, the US, Britain, The Netherlands and Ghana; among which is one of Britain's most significant art prizes - The Charles Wollaston Award - by the Royal Academy of Arts. This was for "Tsiatsia", Anatsui's monumental winning piece, which came first over 13,000 entries worldwide. Only two Africans have so far won this award in the exhibition's 245-year history:  Anatsui in 2013 and Yinka Shonibare, the Nigerian-British artist in 2010.
To mark the 70th birthday anniversary of this globally acclaimed contemporary artist, the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, recently hosted a series of events in his honour.

Therese Nweke
(5th Avenue, D Close, House 6, FESTAC Town, Lagos)