SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The Nigerian sculptor El Anatsui creates huge works, really big ones, so big he often doesn't even assemble them himself. Twelve of his works are not touring the United States and they'll go on display at the Des Moines Art Center next month.
Vivian Goodman of member station WKSU spoke with the artist at the Akron Art Center where the show began about what he does, how he does it, and why.
VIVIAN GOODMAN, BYLINE: El Anatsui knows too well that when most people think of African art, they think of masks, something he would never ask his students to make.
EL ANATSUI: Yeah, I taught my students how to make masks. We don't even make masks in schools.
GOODMAN: He taught art for nearly 30 years in a remote Nigerian village before getting his first big break when his sculpture was shown at the 1990 Venice Biennale. He says contemporary African art has the same reason for being as contemporary art everywhere - to make viewers look and think.
ANATSUI: In Africa, we do art for contemplation only. There's music that you don't dance to. You listen to it. There are people who appreciate the art for its own sake.
GOODMAN: Yet he confesses to his own prejudice at the start of his career when it came to what sculpture could be made of.
ANATSUI: My stereotype of Western art was bronze or marble. It was later on that introduced to some African sculptures that used things like wood, feathers, leather and fabric.
GOODMAN: El Anatsui uses bottle caps, hundreds of thousands of discarded whiskey, gin and rum bottles' screw tops that the sculptor finds too easily in mounds of detritus near his village. He sees in them rampant consumerism and waste, but he also says liquor is a legacy of colonialism and slavery.
ANATSUI: It came with the Europeans when they first came to Africa to trade initially for other goods like gold. But eventually it was traded for people as well.
GOODMAN: That dark story may not be obvious from just looking at his huge, multicolored, highly textured shimmering sheets. They're assembled by assistants who crush, crumple, twist and flatten the tiny bits of metal and thread them together. The artist then gives museum staff license to configure the work by bending, twisting, draping and shaping the flat sheets into forms when they hang the sculptures.
ELLEN RUDOLPH: I think we can come out a little bit further on one or two.
GOODMAN: Ellen Rudolph was curator at the Akron Art Museum. She found the responsibility of deciding what the 12 sculptures should look like overwhelming at first.
RUDOLPH: How am I going to just have some kind of vision for what form it should take? How can I impose that on someone else's art? And then once we got the work here and unfolded it on the floor, because it arrives folded up like a blanket, we had to play with it and get a sense of how it moves and how it lays, and that's when we started to really understand that we could form and sculpt the work. And it was incredibly exciting. It's an amazing gift that El gives the people who work on his installations.
GOODMAN: One of those people was Joe Walton. The museum's chief preparator says one work, called "Glee," came in four giant sections and that was a challenge.
JOE WALTON: Three of those pieces actually hang from the ceiling. That's all custom fabricated, hanging hardware, to support the piece and so it's suspended in the space. Some of the pieces are 12 feet high by 36 feet long. So there's special pulley system rigging hardware to get them up on the wall safely. But this is probably one of the funnest(ph) installs we've had to work on.
GOODMAN: The artist gets something out of the collaboration as well.
ANATSUI: I think the thing that I enjoy about giving people tasks to do with these works is that you go and see that they have even better ideas than you yourself, you know, and that's very uplifting.
GOODMAN: The Akron Art Museum was the first institution of its kind in the U.S. to buy a work by El Anatsui, says curator Ellen Rudolph.
RUDOLPH: We purchased it at a time when many other museums were still looking at this artist as an African artist whose work belonged in the context of African collections. And we were looking at his work as something to add to the larger contemporary art dialogue.
GOODMAN: Meanwhile, El Anatsui, the artist and teacher, feels he owes it to those who assemble, install and see his work to awaken their creativity.
ANATSUI: Every one of us has an artist in us. Really, some might be asleep and some are fully awake, you know. So I think I have a kind of commitment to waking up some people in whom it is asleep. Teaching, my work is still teaching.
GOODMAN: Most of the metal sculptures and tapestries in the El Anatsui exhibition have never before been seen in this country. And as they tour it through 2014, they'll be seen differently in each city in which they stop. For NPR News, I'm Vivian Goodman.