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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Artist El Anatsui Discusses His Vast Vinyl Collection

El Anatsui may be known best for his metallic tapestries made from bottle caps, but he is also a musician.

In his university days, he played trumpet, performing music by Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington in a school band guided by an American music director. The band’s leader, Anatsui once said, introduced him to the music of Fela Kuti, founder of the Afrobeat genre. The band would later meet the Nigerian musician when he toured Ghana, Anatsui’s homeland—and even ended opening for him when he was on tour.

“Just like Fela, with his bravery, courage, and audacity to break rules and set new benchmarks, I believe that my career has proven to me that the audiences are present and will always look to the artist to lead, to expand their experience with new presentations, or renewals of old fare,” Anatsui told ARTnews.

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Anatsui’s music career recently came to the fore with a show at Dubai’s Efie Gallery. The focus here was not Anatsui’s bottle-cap tapestries but his record collection, which includes music by Kuti, Gladys Knight, Manu Dibango, King Sunny Ade, Tony Allen, Aretha Franklin, and many more. The collection, unveiled here to the public for the first time, offered a rare glimpse into the largely unseen musical side of Anatsui’s career. Alongside these vinyl records are some of Anatsui’s early sketches, which include song lyrics, music titles and poetry, providing an understanding of his musical and cultural influences.

Anatsui spoke to ARTnews about his musical influences and how they inform his work.

ARTnews: How would you describe your relationship with music?

El Anatsui: Music and art have been the two areas in the creative disciplines close to my heart. I have tried to practice one, full-time now, the other sporadically but yearning more to be given attention.  After decades of art practice in which the abstract has predominated, looking back I see the similarity between the areas.

To me, music is the most abstract of the arts, using pure elements of sound to create just like as a sculptor I attempt to draw on the innate potentials or properties of my media to create. In hindsight still, one other feature strikes me. I’ve mostly worked with ordinary commonplace media so far, and I have a feeling this was triggered unconsciously by my exposure to South African music in my formative years. Recalling what the likes of Little Lemmy Mabaso, Big Joe, Spokes Mashiyane, and other musicians did using the common, cheap pennywhistle in their infectious kwela music that I heard in Radio Ghana’s Saturday “Way Down South” programs of the 1960s probably paved the way for me to, after art school, turn to cheap, available local media to start my career and remain with.

A group of vinyl records on shelving units.

Objects from El Anatsui’s record collection at Efie Gallery.

Courtesy Efie Gallery

The records in this exhibition are described as “offering a unique glimpse into the cultural aspirations” that have shaped your career. Can you share an example when a song or album played a major role in creating a body of work?

Well, not necessarily creating a body of work, but rather the trigger for an idea. This can be seen in a few of my drawings where I make reference to lyrics of Fela Kuti’s songs. This is the starting point, as one cannot illustrate music, but rather draw elements from it as a guide. An example is my sketch, currently also on display with the vinyl records, that references Fela’s “Question Jam Answer.” On this occasion, listening to the lyrics, I found the two questions to be very valid. They refer to situations that lead to stalemates. It’s a scenario where one is expected to answer a query, but he had the audacity and freedom to respond with a query.

There are also triggers from music or the instruments themselves, such as my work Keyboard of Life [a 2021 tapestry that looks like piano keys]. A keyboard is like a field on which fingers move linearly (in melodies), or in groups, as in harmonies. This can be likened to a solo studio voice in art or massed voices which support the artist—they kind of lift you up. There’s the sensation one gets listening to “Amazing Grace,” which Aretha Franklin returned to record with the choir she started with after many years in the limelight. One could almost feel a kind of audacity that the many voices gave her as she floated above their powerful sound wave. Scenarios like this abound in my work, with my many assistants.

What draws you to Fela Kuti’s music and how does that show up in your work?

Fela’s career began with highlife, a genre that has been around since before my childhood days. He took this music as a starting point and introduced several elements, creating the peculiar genre dubbed Afrobeat. At the beginning of Fela’s musical journey when he was playing highlife, one could feel his unease with the status quo and his struggles to move it to a new level. He was searching for something else with a jazzy orientation, so when he eventually came up with Afrobeat, those of us who followed his trajectory were not at all surprised.

Commonly, highlife music is based on a 4/4 or a 2/4 beat. Fela’s Afrobeat remained with the 4/4 beat, but with the bass drum beats irregularly clustered instead of in equal time intervals, with occasional builds to a crescendo followed by a drop, then picking up again. So, spatially, he enlivened the bass drum lines of highlife. This is something that has continued and is now commonplace in the music scene.  It has given musicians the courage to also experiment with the bass drum and other percussion instruments, which, hitherto, were given very conservative roles.

I share in the same spirit of exploration that led to Fela introducing a new genre. In my practice, I have always been inspired to question the way things have been done. In school, we started with carving wood, using gouges and mallets, which were the traditional tools for shaping wood. I always asked the question, “Why can’t wood be shaped by other means as well?” In the process, I began working with tools such as the chainsaw and eventually other power tools which revealed more about the wood medium to me and possibly my audience.

The process of carving is very slow and evolutionary. Thus, in using the chainsaw to carve, a machine that in contrast does things really fast, I was forced to find new meanings, which I think are in sync with the rat race of our times, whereby we want to achieve things at a revolutionary pace. While it may not be particular works by Fela that have influenced my practice, the attitude of questioning or trying to experiment and finding new meanings in old ideas has been of great influence.

An open book and a lamp on a display table in front of vinyl records in a shelving unit.

Objects from El Anatsui’s record collection at Efie Gallery.

Courtesy Efie Gallery

Some early sketches of your works are also on view in this exhibition. When it comes to your career, what are you sure of now that you wish you knew at that time?

I am now certain that there are always new or undiscovered ways of doing things. For example, in the case of chainsaws, their main use had been felling or sawing wood into logs. I thought that it could be used in a more expressive and meaningful way, and it didn’t fail, as it resonated with audiences who were previously used to seeing carved wooden artworks. They were now experiencing wooden artworks that have been crafted at a pace commensurate with our times.  Just like Fela, I believe that my career has proven that the audiences will always look to the artist to lead, to expand their experience with new presentations or renewals of old fare. When encountering objects, I think of what they can do and what has not been explored yet, and try to explore it. Freedom has a lot to do with it. As a young person, you live in a regulated society where you are instructed to do things a certain way, but when I became freer as an adult, I realized that so many things were possible and that the right thing for me to do, if I was to remain relevant, was to take advantage of freedom to renew the world.

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