Three Angles (or Sometimes You Catch a Crocodile): El Anatsui and Dee Briggs Interviewed by Jessica Lanay

The artists discuss a specially commissioned sculpture for the Carnegie International.

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El Anatsui, Three Angles, 2018. Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art. Photograph by Bryan Conley.

I sat across from world-renowned sculptor El Anatsui at the Carnegie Museum of Art; behind him was a window that opened onto the back of hilly Pittsburgh. After a few questions his warm and discerning candor made me less nervous and scrutinous of my questions. I said, “Your sculptures remind me of fishing nets, but your work entraps minds.” El Anatsui paused, gave a thoughtful smile, and responded, “Sometimes … you catch a crocodile.” This became the essence of our conversation, which was filled with specificity, surprise, and clarity. The metaphor of the crocodile indicates the capacity that art has to instigate change. Talking with him and Pittsburgh-based sculptor Dee Briggs revealed the life, spirit, and construction of El Anatsui’s sculpture, Three Angles (2018), which transforms the facade of the Carnegie Museum of Art from brutalist architecture into supernal topography.

—Jessica Lanay

Jessica Lanay El, how do you feel about the constant recontextualizing of your work?

El Anatsui I think that art is something that should lend itself to constant recontextualization. I remember in high school when we went to the science lab for the first time and the teacher said that we were going to carry out an experiment to demonstrate how oxygen supports combustion. The key word to me was “demonstrate.” After an experience like that I then thought that science was about setting up a proposition and proving whether or not it is true. My first art class required us to do imaginative composition. While science class attempted to feed us information, art asked us to search for something from within ourselves. I believe the creative endeavor is about exploration. It is bound to be open-ended, divergent, and free to various contextualizations. People approach this work with different antecedents, and these are what enable them to read meaning into it, or not get any meaning at all, which is still not a waste of time.

JL Would you say that there are ways that your work is like your language?

EA There is always the language of the material, which is something that I leave for people to decipher for themselves. What I have done with some of my work is to title it in such a way that it doesn’t give away any meaning or context, because titles have a way of stopping people from thinking about other things that might be there. There are times that I find it difficult to even title a work for fear of the title standing in the way, or getting in the way, or stopping people from encountering other ideas that might be in the work. Instead, they start looking for the meaning of that title in the piece. At times I feel that artworks should be given numbers.

Dee Briggs That is exactly what I have done. My work is titled Three Rings. I am really matter of fact for the same reason.

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El Anatsui, Three Angles, 2018. Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art. Photograph by Bryan Conley. 

JL Sometimes you reference the transatlantic slave trade, and I think of disposability, commodification, and how human bodies were and are treated. Is your artwork about the human body as detritus?

EA The materials I use in my work are reminders of what we discard in both our lives and imaginations. Yet the richness of our environment constantly reminds us of numerous alternatives that challenge us to see rather than look, to think instead of presume.

I have employed both materials and processes, such as the chainsaw, literally and figuratively to demonstrate divisions—political, economic, social, cultural, psychological—and their erosion as part of the human experience. There is this obvious impermanence about the human body that eventually terminates in detritus, just as there is a certain impermanence about my work that enables me to reconfigure, redirect, and rehang it in varying ways.

With respect to my referencing the transatlantic slave trade at times in my work, I avoid being prescriptive or admonitory. Rather, I re-present the past and present with empathy and respect.

JL Many curators credit you with being a bridge between African, international, and contemporary art labels. What do you think of these labels? 

EA I am not comfortable with categorizations. I find they often serve as terminological strictures that limit and pigeonhole individuals, concepts, attitudes, and artworks into simple classifying tags or phrases. For example, “Africa” is frequently viewed in the West as a single country, but it is also a word that connotes fifty-four states and hundreds of completely different ethnic groups and cultures, atypical political and religious systems, and up to three thousand languages. “Africa” represents the second largest continent, covering twenty percent of the Earth’s land area; the population accounts for more than sixteen percent of the world’s total population. “Africa” is international: it is a place where the Arab world, Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean, and Asia closely intertwine.

These interconnectivities have been largely economic, political, militaristic, linguistic, cultural, religious, and psychological. They have created a cauldron of experiences that impacts contemporary art and society.

In reality, therefore, my work is no bridge that links any or all of these so-called labels. Art is the one language we all speak, and is infinite in power. Art is about the voyage of the human spirit and the commonality of all experiences.

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El Anatsui, Three Angles, 2018. Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art. Photograph by Bryan Conley.

JL You are participating in the Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. You and Dee Briggs transformed the facade of the building for the exhibition. How did you decide on the printing plates from Knepper Press as your material? How did you and Dee develop the concept?

EA With enormous dimensions you want to think of a medium that you can effectively and quickly deploy and that expands and engages the space. The other thought was that it has to be material that is not only local but is in plentiful supply. What we have a copious supply of these days is information, and with that you are talking about printing plates, newspapers, books, and electronic aids. Printing plates are light and soft enough to manipulate. In the beginning Dee and I did a lot of playing around with it: folding it with our hands, bending, punching, all kinds of things. Within a day we had about three or four different groups of textures arranged on the floor to study. Research revealed that part of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic projects built and donated over two thousand five hundred libraries worldwide. My work was talking about his involvement in the dissemination of knowledge through the printed word.

DB It was a pretty straightforward process of understanding what El wanted the piece to be like, and of going through a design and development process to determine how we were going to do it. For instance, how to attach the plates to each other, while also constantly keeping in mind what the museum would allow us to do. We could not attach the project to the facade of the museum, which was a design challenge, so it was suspended at the top and anchored at the bottom. We had to have thirty feet of continuous material that was going to hold together on its own. Tying the pieces together with steel and copper wire as El does in his smaller pieces was not possible with the large plates, because the plates would rip. We kept researching and came across an architectural-facade tape made by 3M, and the reps came out and taught us how to use it.

JL How did you come to include the mirror portion?

EA We talked about it from the beginning. With a structure of this nature I thought that the geometry was rather intimidating if not overpowering. I thought that if mirrors are installed from the top they would bring in the atmosphere, virtually break the building, and introduce the sky. Also, the mirror to me has certain historical connotations; it was brought to my part of the world by European traders as a means of barter, which resulted in connections between three continents that became the transatlantic slave trade. This was followed by the colonization project, which disrupted many people and cultures. Therefore, there is the need to go back and search for what existed before the disruption. This desire to reflect by means of a mirror enables one to simultaneously look backward while facing forward.

JL How did you come to the final look? How did you imagine this in terms of progressions of color, texture, and movement?

EA Movement was conceived on two fronts: first with the lines, in homage to the two rivers (the Allegheny and the Monongahela) that dictate the city’s grid; and secondly in terms of the colors on the plates. Initially, I thought I would just mix the colors. Dee was very persistent at asking questions all the time, apparently not satisfied with my initial decision, which in turn influenced me to revise and rethink my position, to create a chromatic movement, including stronger color hues moving up, while getting lighter downward—like reversing gravity.

DB The plates had arrived, and El had communicated previously this idea of separating the colors along with giving me an indication of the magentas here and the blues there. The first thing we did when the plates arrived was to sort them, and everyone in the neighborhood helped. I began to realize that there was a real difference in the density of color on the plates. I photographed the different plates and sent the photos to El, and then asked how he felt about their arrangement. He decided that he liked the idea of the gradient. The following day, the whole team got back together, and I said, Alright, now we are going to sort them in an entirely different way.

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El Anatsui, Three Angles, 2018. Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art. Photograph by Bryan Conley.

JL Liminality and change are aesthetics you have carried through the phases of your work. Could you speak more about creating from a liminal space?

EA I tend to regard liminality as not being an aesthetic concept in art, despite the attempts in the last few decades to use it to define and interpret art. To quote Anish Kapoor: “An artist gets to a point where people tell you what your art is about and not the other way around.”

I have never considered my work to be between or on any threshold, or as it were suspended in a transitional phase in which anything is possible. Actually, liminality can be dangerous if care is not taken, and this is because it can become a situation of being neither here nor there, or of looking out and also looking in.

But concerning the process of creation: Does a writer need to say how he writes a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence, a word? At times the process may or may not be more crucial than the product. I think that for a work of art to be effective it has to have the ability to change people. And how do people change? You change when you hit a threshold. If you didn’t hit a threshold, you probably wouldn’t have changed.

El Anatsui’s sculpture Three Angles is on view at the Carnegie International, 57th Editionuntil March 25. 

Jessica Lanay is a poet, short fiction, and art writer. Her work focuses on architectures of interiority, escapism, history of psychoanalysis, and Southern culture. Her poetry has appeared in Sugar House Review, Fugue, A Bad Penny Review, The COMMON, Indiana Review, and The Normal School. Her short fiction was most recently published in Tahoma Literary Review and Black Candies. A short autobiographical essay was published in Salt Hill Journal. Her art writing can be found in BOMB and ArtSlant. She is a Callaloo, Cave Canem, and Kimbilio Fellow.

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