A few years ago I endowed an artist’s residency at my alma mater Princeton. The residency enables an international artist each year to go to Princeton for a few days, give a public talk, visit with students in workshops and small group discussions and have one-on-one meetings with faculty from various university departments. It also provides for a work by that artist to be purchased by the University Museum. So far Emre Huner (Turkey), Thomas Hirshhorn (Switzerland) and Goshka Macuga (Poland) have been invited. This year we were thrilled that Ghanaian artist El Anatsui accepted the invitation for 2015, and I while I was in the US on a recent trip, I went to hear him in conversation with Chika Okeke-Agulu, associate Professor of African Art in the Art History department. Chika is a former student of Anatsui’s, and it was because of their strong friendship that we were able to get Anatsui to divert from an incredibly busy schedule and come to Princeton.
Word spread quickly and due to the high demand, the venue for the talk was moved to one of the largest lecture theatres on campus, McCosh 10, where I remember sitting through many a lecture, taking many an exam, and puzzling over the names and slogans carved into the wooden desk tops. Ayn Rand was apparently at her most popular in early 1980s because I distinctly recall “Who is John Galt?” being incised into many of the desks. Anyway, I now found myself seated in the front row in a section reserved for my mother, eldest daughter and me, looking up at Chika dressed in a beautiful African tunic and El looking relaxed in shirt sleeves, discussing how he came to make the exquisitely beautiful hangings, assembled from used liquor-bottle caps and copper that have been installed at the Royal Academy, the High Line in New York and the Centre Pompidou.
To a lot of people, Anatsui is a relatively new name, but he is in his 70s and has an illustrious 40-year career as Professor of Sculpture and Departmental Head at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Ever since 2007, when he draped the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice with a large shimmering wall sculpture made of thousands of aluminium bottle tops, he has become an international sensation. But his early work referenced traditional Ghanaian functional objects and aesthetic traditions, and he used wood, ceramic and paint. His work first entered the Met’s African – not Contemporary – collection, for instance, and was presented in relation to traditional Kente cloth, woven of multicolored bright patterns into cloth that was originally worn only by kings in Ghana.
El Anatsui’s Princeton talk coincided with the announcement of his being awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement by the Venice Biennale, so it was an even greater honour to have dinner with him that evening on campus at Prospect House. He is a naturally modest man, with a quiet demeanor and an easy smile. His gallerist Jack Shainman was there as well, and Jack was especially eager to show how El’s work was being installed in Shainman’s new upstate gallery space. El spent several minutes poring over the photographs, carefully considering the installation and viewpoints, and Jack and his associate hung back in tense anticipation of El’s approval. He is softly spoken, so one needs to listen closely to him and he has clearly earned the respect that everyone pays him when he expresses his opinions and ideas.
The work purchased by the Princeton University Art Museum is spectacularly beautiful, and I felt really proud to have played a role in placing it in the collection.