The invitation came from Nsukka for an event in Lagos. The day before, I got a call from Chijioke Onuorah that they were coming to Lagos on the 14th of March for the opening ceremony and exhibition Playing With Chance in honour of El Anatsui at 70, being hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos. I had registered over a year ago at the CCA and had received notifications for stuff they did. I wondered how this one didn’t get to me. But an opening is always a party; I loved El; and some great friends were coming!
The afternoon traffic of the 14th was aggravated by the car queues waiting to get fuel at stations along the way. I got there very late, with my friend Burns Effiom of AGAN. The gathering was delightful- I hugged El and rushed to meet Chijioke Onuorah who had made the trip from Nsukka with Eva Obodo(both former students of El);and Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, an alumnus of Nsukka who came to show support. In the crowd were other former students- Ndidi Dike, Chinwe Uwatse and some other people I figured were alumni of the University of Nigeria, Fine and Applied Art department. It was interesting to see some other major players in the Lagos Art scene. There was the director of Mydrim Gallery Sinmidele Adesanya, Nana Sonuiki, Marc-Andre Schmachtel (Goethe Institut), Uche James-Iroha and his wife Tic, Olabisi Silva’s curatorial assistant for this exhibition Taiye Idahor; Rikki Wemaga-Kwawu(delivering a paper on El sometime today,as part of the exhibition’s package), Rom Isichei, Kainebi, Ben Osaghae, the ever-jovial Ato Arinze, Emeka Udemba, Jude Anogwih, art historian Erin Rice, Ogbemi Heyman, Emi Faloughi, Okey Stain Eze, George Edozie, Oliver Enwonwu, and other Lagos artists/art enthusiasts who looked very familiar but i couldn’t somehow figure out their names. Of the three former students of exhibiting alongside El, Amarachi Okafor made it for the opening ceremony. The other artists are Nnenna Okore and Lucy Azubuike.
The exhibition was full of memorabilia, and a lot of art-related personal effects of El-old pencil and ink drawings, exhibition catalogues, a selection of Art books, sales receipts etc. Of particular note was El’s collection of reproductions of Uche Okeke’s 1958 drawings. They looked like sketches El could have made for his wall hangings. His work also had strong echoes of the kente textiles of his native country Ghana. He had investigated his roots deeply, and had chosen a technique unique to his origins. An understanding of the evolution of the man’s work would fill anyone going through the show with awe, and reverence. El Anatsui had grown logically, listening and ‘writing’ a masterful history, sequencing the emergence of the great masquerade. I did not fully get the title of the exhibition, Playing With Chance. All I saw was the development of a master who deliberately tied the chords of his past together, and well, to present a stroke of genius to the world. The actions of the artist seemed thought out, and had happened logicaly in progressions in time.
Looking at the exhibits, I suddenly had a strange urge to find out something or anything about El’s mother. I couldn’t understand where that thought came from. The man wove intricate patterns, combined a generally limited palette of colours, included magical symbols that spoke volumes, and created contrasting inspired positive and negative spaces. There is hope, following the footsteps of a giant. I looked at El, and appreciated Uche Okeke the more. El and his contemporaries/co-lecturers then at Nsukka had formed AKA group of exhibiting artists in 1989. They included Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu, Tayo Adenike, Chris Echeta, Bona Ezeudo, Nsikak Essien, etc. They all had their peculiar styles and media.
Ahem, one had to think again about the female co-exhibitors Nnenna Okore, Lucy Azubuike, and Amarachi Okafor. The hosts may have been limited by the space of their hall in their choice. One is aware that El has made a huge impact, and influenced many other artists from his lecturing days at Nsukka. I will not go back to repeating the names of all the other artists who came for the opening, who feel a strong allegiance and kinship with El’s work. Really, its a collective chain of interactions that we see in his work, of meetings, readings, and assimilations. Even people that have never been to Nsukka can feel a kinship with El. The man belongs here, as much as to Ghana, to the other sojourners. We can move on, continue working on our art, building from sketch. It is the way of the masters. Success does not happen by chance.
NB: Many other people know him better than myself. I have drunk from the fountains of his wisdom, and maybe I am a bit intoxicated. I left the hall of the celebration of El Anatsui bursting with enthusiasm, rushing for the more intimate meeting-El had invited some of us alumni of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts out for dinner.
Olabisi SIlva and her team at CCA have done well, and put together an excellent show of, and for Professor El Anatsui. Of course I will return on another day when the hall is quieter to enjoy the bits and pieces-video clips, interviews, letters, essays etcetra from the life of the artist. It will not be easy absorbing all the material, but maybe the one-month long show will suffice to tell a history of one of Africa’s great artists.