The artist El Anatsui has been announced this week as the winner of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at 2015’s Venice Biennale. The award recognises a career of work that has been second to none in establishing international recognition for contemporary African art.
The jury this year is led by the president of the Biennale Paolo Baratta and the curator of the Biennale Okwui Enwezor who explained that the award recognised the ‘originality of Anatsui’s artistic vision’ and the part he has played in ‘the recognition of contemporary African artists in the global arena’ as well as the important work he has carried out as a teacher for more than 45 years.
Born in 1944 in Anyako, Ghana Anatsui has been working in the university town of Nsukka in Nigeria since 1975. Principally a sculptor, his work initially formed part of a wave of post-independence art in the 1960s and 70s. Since then his work has continued to centre on political and historical issues. His artwork incorporates found materials that he transforms into startlingly beautiful pieces of art. He is most famous for his enormous ‘sewing’ sculptures, in which thousands of aluminium bottle tops are stitched together to form an ornate, glinting tapestry. It can be difficult to look beyond the aesthetic pleasure of his work, but Anatsui is attempting to provoke his viewer to consider the consumption and the waste that drives so much of contemporary society. Nonetheless, Anatsui is keen to leave his works open to interpretation and encourages them to be hung differently when they are installed in new locations, saying “I don’t want to be a dictator. I want to be somebody who suggests things.” His works are indeed deeply suggestive of issues relating to the systems of value in place both in art, and in the world at large, made all the more pertinent by the extremely high prices his work now commands.
Anatsui’s work lends itself well to outside spaces and in 2013 his piece Tsiatsia – Searching for Connection was hung across the façade of the Royal Academy in London. His work features in some of the most important collecitons in the world including the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, the Centre Pompidou and LACMA.
Anatsui will receive the award on 9 May at the 56th edition of the Biennale.