Recently, the picturesque town of Nsukka played host to scores of local and international participants comprising culture entrepreneurs, academics, artists and art promoters at the Anya Fulu Ugo art conference and exhibition. The interdisciplinary event was organised by the Faculty of Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka in honour of El Anatsui and Obiora Udechukwu, two cerebral art professors for their global academic and professional successes. Ghanaian-born and Nigeria-based Professor El Anatsui has been described as perhaps the most significant living African artist working on the continent today. In this interview with Agwu Enekwachi from his hill top residence in Nsukka, Anatsui talks about his career as artist and an academic as well as his views on current art trends
After spending 36 years as an academic, how would you describe the impact of your work in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka?
In everything one does, you start and hopefully develop upon the foundation. I started with the curriculum as drawn by the department and tried to follow it as much as I could. As time went on, I saw the need to introduce things I thought students needed to know and which might take some time to be accepted in the curriculum. I mean things like the business aspect of art, which is found in many other professions. The students are exposed so that they don’t come out and become victims to unscrupulous people. When you talk about business of something, the business people are always there also to make their cut. So, that is one of the things that I think I introduced. I don’t know if the students know how important it is. Because I don’t see them exposed to situations, where they can call on such and use it. Most of the time, we take things for granted. When we started, we did not know some of these things. In the process, we were kind of cheated in some instances like copyright laws and rights of artists. The curriculum kind of limited students to certain traditional media but even long before there was a change from National Universities Commission, which brought in things like indigenous art forms and techniques. I started exposing my students to new media in order to widen their scope so they are not working only in traditional media like clay, wood and cement which I thought was just getting too much focus for students. So, those are some of the things that I would say I have done as far as teaching is concerned.
Art is constantly evolving by the day. After getting to the level you are, I would want to hear your definition of art today. Has the definition of art changed from how you viewed it when you started?
Certainly, they have been a big change in what art is or what can be art. I wouldn’t say definition of art. There are so many fresh ideas, fresh takes that many artists have brought to the discipline and such that you wouldn’t want to talk about definition. It is something, which is not kind of stopped yet. But continues to go on as long as you call it art. Art is one of the areas in human endeavour that you have the freedom to do things without being prosecuted. They call it artistic license. There are a lot you can do in other areas that you can be prosecuted. That is why cartoonists can cartoon and say or depict things that you can’t say with words. Even some cartoonists equally use words as well and the freedom that is supposed to define art is what people are getting more aware of. Art is one of the areas that human spirit is free to do things as against other areas of school curricula, for instance, where you have what is called convergent thinking. You know like you ask a question and there is only one right answer, which is convergent thinking. If you say two plus two, the answer is expected to be four. If you light a match and take it to an oxygen tank and let out the oxygen … it will burn. That is convergent thinking. Art is one of the few areas, the creative areas [that can be called] divergent thinking. If you ask a question to 19 persons, you may have19 different answers and all of them are correct because each person would be viewing things in his own distinct unique way. That being the case, what we have seen happen in the recent years is what I can call the growth of divergent thinking. That leaves us with a lot of freedom. Art is not something you define, it is something, which is evolving and it is evolving in the right way.
The growth of divergent thinking as you mentioned and as referenced by the Anya Fulu Ugo art exhibition is a representation of these changing landscapes and expanding frontiers of art .The changes are in terms of media, processes and ideas and may be anchored in the work you and several others have done, thus the questions about art are being interpreted in more ways. What is your assessment of this trend?
In terms of the media, people work with and in terms of processes as well as ideas. What I think is yet to be fine-tuned is the fact that there is yet a proper understanding of the media. For instance, in the exhibition, there is someone who did something with tires but I did not see any evidence of tire there. In other words, he mangled the medium in such a way that you don’t see it at all, in which case he is trying to see it as clay. Tire is tire and you should see it as tire. Clay is soft and malleable and you can shape anything out of it. It does not have a persona. The tire when we see it we should expect to see that it is tire. So, anybody exploring it should endeavour to understand what it can do and how to keep its integrity in the work rather than destroy it completely. We are not looking for just shapes but for shapes, which relate materials and the work together. Even if you shred it, it should be in such a way that it still has element of its identity. So, that people can say okay this is tire. It is talking about movement, travel and about distance. So, I didn’t see any allusion to the uses or the function of tire in the work in question. That’s what I mean by understanding the media and keeping its integrity so that the media is also talking not you alone. Coming from the background of using clay and cement, that is what results in attempts to work with newer materials. So, that is the major thing I see that needs to be fine-tuned. But in terms of growth of media and process, there is certainly an awareness that makes the young artist know that they have a wide-range of media to select from. There are still more things. Right now, everybody is working with tangible things. There are very few people working with intangible things like sound and light. These mediums are there to be exploited or explored.
But people relate the visual arts or fine arts to tangibility, what you can touch mainly. Do you mean using light or sound in combination of other materials, as mixed-media?
One can combine sound or light with the three-dimensional work but it can also be done on its own as a medium. When you say visual arts it means you are restricting it to things you can perceive with the eye. Art is something you perceive and when you say perception there are five senses – hearing, seeing, touching, smelling and feeling. One should be able to create works that you can access through any of these senses. The perception of art in the past was mostly visual therefore something you access through the eyes mainly, but now the other senses are also being catered for. Art is something you access through those senses.
Much of your career as an artist has witnessed a lot of international exposure and patronage. What aspects of these engagements would you want to see reflected locally here in Nigeria or Africa generally?
I think it is appreciation, critical appreciation. Not looking at a work and saying “Ah it is fine!” but being able to analyse and say that there is this or that there. I don’t think this element goes well with this or that. Most times people think artworks are things you praise but that should not be the case. In other parts of the world where I have been, they can be critical assessment or reading of what the artist does. And that is necessary otherwise you will just do anything and it goes as art. And that is not good for the arts profession and people will just think that this people are not serious. Anything they do is okay.
For beginners, the issue of funding is sometimes a hindrance to their aspiration to widen their practice. What do you think about the issue of access to funding for artists?
I don’t know if what artists need is funding. I doubt. What they need is not funding because the first test of the artist is to create out of nothing. So, what is he looking for funds for? You are not looking for funds for anything. You create out of nothing and when your creation is recognised, may be you can generate your own funds. It is not trading, whereby you say that, “Yes, I need a shop or building. I have to pay rent for it or you need capital to start and so on.” You don’t do that in art. You start with nothing. I don’t think Udechukwu or any other artist applied for or looked for funds. They are working with ideas and ideas are not things that require funds, you don’t get them with funds.
When people reach a certain level in their chosen career or life generally in terms of accomplishments, they start thinking of how to empower others for example in your case you might be thinking towards empowering younger artists or towards the development of art generally. Are you planning to have a foundation?
When I plan things I don’t want to announce them ahead of time. I normally would want things to develop organically. Like saying I am about to set up a foundation, I don’t do such things. It could start gradually without my knowledge, without my knowing it that there is something akin to what people call foundation. When you notice it, you decide how to grow it and to fine-tune it. I would not want to say I am planning a foundation or I am not planning a foundation. I am looking out to see how I can help in the betterment or appreciation of the profession to which I belong to let it have the kind of recognition that other professions have because still people don’t quite give recognition to the artist. It is not only here it is there in other parts of the world like America and Europe. In America, for example, if there is any financial crunch, they go to their cultural sector and cut their funding. As artists, one is thinking about that too. Since you are now associated with or identified with the profession, you want to let it have recognition.
Some words for younger artists who may be looking up to you and I think they are many of them.
They shouldn’t look up to me. As artists you don’t look up to other artists, you develop what you have in you. Chart your own path and move along with it. Art is not about money-making. If the objective is to make money, then you are in the wrong path. You know just like people look at artists, whose works are selling and they want to do the same thing to go and sell. You might make money but at the end of the day when art history is written your name cannot be there because your work is seen as a parody of somebody else’s. In other words, you did not have a voice.
– Enekwachi, a sculptor, art teacher and culture journalist, writes from Nsukka.–
n January, the website IfOnly.com, a San Francisco lifestyle company that organises and sells so-called curated experiences, began to offer exclusive, one-on-one private tours of a socially connected photography collector’s Georgian mansion in the Pacific Heights neighbourhood.
About a third of the collection’s roughly 300 photographs had been featured as a 2012 exhibition at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The company sales pitch touts the museum’s approval. The price of a 90-minute private tour: US$3,500 and up.
A Wall Street Journal tech writer was frank in describing the company’s general marketing plan: “You get to do some shoulder-rubbing with the jet setter of your choice if you cough up the dough.” Art museum pedigree adds lustre.
So does another, far more troubling fact: the businessman-collector is also a de Young trustee.
The link between the art museum and IfOnly is emblematic of a disturbing transformation, which has been unfolding over a generation: museums are being relentlessly commercialised.
For-profit art dealers are organising shows for nonprofit museums. Museum professionals are organising shows for commercial art fairs and galleries. Museum collections are being monetised, rented out for profit to other museums and private corporations. Corporations are co-organising museum shows.
Nonprofit status subsidises museums through the public tax code. The status was invented more than a century ago to foster diversity of independent thought, free from the narrow economic demands of business or the ideological commands of government. Today, that independence is being corrupted as the wall separating art museums from business activities is crumbling.
In fact, so commonplace is the boundary-blurring that few any longer notice. A new normal is in the making, most notably in the US (although it also happens elsewhere).
Take the IfOnly “curated experience”. The art, together with the town house, belongs to Trevor Traina, the internet start-up entrepreneur behind the site. Not only is Traina on the de Young Museum’s board, his mother, socialite and philanthropist Dede Wilsey, is its powerful longtime president. She held the position when her son’s art collection was put on the exhibition schedule.
Two curators assembled the show, including publication of a book. One is on the museum’s staff, the other is the private art adviser hired by Traina to help him buy his collection.
Conflicts of interest, real or perceived, were inescapable for everyone involved. Kenneth Baker, the recently retired San Francisco Chronicle art critic who panned the exhibition – he called its conceptual framework “slack” – further lamented the presentation as “an unseemly exercise” that “raised ethical questions rather than critical ones”.
As if Baker’s complaint mattered: the trustee’s subsequent private-access sales pitch adds a fresh layer of commercial exploitation.
Museum commercialisation is rampant in the new millennium. And there are other recent examples from across America.
The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery turned over curatorial duties to two local dealers for a pair of spring shows of artists represented by their galleries, Copro and Thinkspace. A civic exhibition space became a 10,000 sq ft retail outlet. In June a Hirshhorn Museum curator organised an exhibition for Art Basel, the world’s leading commercial art fair. A second Hirshhorn curator is serving on the advisory committee of Moving Image Istanbul, a new art fair in Turkey.
A current exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art celebrates “The Coca-Cola Bottle: An American Icon at 100”. The museum organised the show in collaboration with the Coca-Cola Co. The board of trustees’ vice-chairman for exhibitions is the son of influential Coke executive Donald R. Keough, a life trustee until his death in February.
New York’s Guggenheim Museum is renting out 10 paintings from its collection, including masterpieces by Picasso, Kandinsky and Cezanne, to the El Paso Museum of Art. According to the contract, the city-owned Texas museum is picking up local transportation, insurance and installation costs and paying a rental fee of US$200,000 – far in excess of routine Guggenheim administrative expenses. The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, have engaged in similar rentals, although ethics guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors forbid using a museum’s permanent collection for financial gain.
A recent exhibition at Culver City’s Mark Moore Gallery was organised by Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. Davies co-organised artist Vernon Fisher’s 1989 mid-career survey at his museum. The commercial venture contravenes established ethics guidelines of the professional associations of both museum directors and curators.
These examples, all current or recent, range from minor to momentous. Yet the litany is revealing. Not so long ago, the existence of just one would have raised eyebrows, if not a ruckus, but their proliferation barely registers today. Commercial intrusions are widely regarded with shoulder-shrugging nonchalance.
The question is: why?
Partly it’s because public funding in the US has shrunk. By contrast, the sheer volume of private money now sloshing around the art world is unprecedented. Artists, galleries and museums all depend on the same wealthy patrons, who also dominate museum boards of trustees.
Art is a proven asset class, like bonds or real estate, and private assets require protection. The demand is met in part by the professional seal of approval afforded by museums, which implies lasting quality. Inside the institution, an urge to lower the bar in courting philanthropy grows powerful. When commercial pressure comes from outside, an institutional duty to say no requires exceptional fortitude, unusual cleverness or both.
The art world is also newly transnational. The United States’ large and established nonprofit museum sector stands in marked contrast to the more common state and private museum models with which it now engages. Globally the sector is distinctive, if not unique, on the world stage – but pressure for conformity builds.
Responsibility does not lie with those participating on the commercial end of things. Artists make art to be seen, while dealers and consultants facilitate art’s distribution. All can be knowledgeable, and none can force their way in. They’d be foolish not to grab the opportunity.
Instead, museums are flinging open their doors to commerce. Commitment to keeping trade at arm’s length has eroded.
What can be done about the spreading commercialisation of art museums? As long as commerce is confused with a vibrant civil life, probably not much. Museums are integral to cultural infrastructure – highways to human happiness and bridges to communal knowledge.
For the foreseeable future, it seems, we are pretty much stuck with “if only”.