Trip to Toronto part II- African Art and Nuit Blanche

After seeing the El Anatsui Retrospective, Olivia and I decided to use our time wisely by looking at art that was relevant to both of us. As a result, we found ourselves at a photo exhibit by Afro- Canadian artists, textile section and then the African and Oceanic section of the ROM. Thanks to my West African art class, for the first time in my life I understood some of the artwork I was looking at. Immediately, I recognized the Ikenga, Ci Wara, Bogolan cloth. I was also happy to see some Southern African art show cased.

This pic below was in another section, I found really interesting.

After a good lunch at Japanese restaurant, we made our way to the Art Gallery of Ontario. We had the opportunity to view some really good contemporary art work. Wehad  both taken the Contemporary art class last Spring, so we were pretty pleased with ourselves every time we recognized the work of an artist we had previously learnt about. These artists included Julian Schnabel, Betty Goodwin, Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin and Shary Boyle. I absolutely loved Schnabel’s gigantic, textured canvases!

Dinner that night was Italian.

Much later, we  found out that we were at the right place at the right time. This was because on the night that were happened to be in Toronto, “Nuit Blanche” was happening. This was a celebration of contemporary art for one night only, all night long and an all free event. It started from 6.57pm until sunrise. The fliers read, “For one sleepless night experience Toronto transformed by artists.” Hence, we found ourselves walking past groups of dancing students, jostling to see break dancers spinning upside down, looking up to see interactive videos projected onto tall buildings and listening to sound installations before making our way to the nuit market. As the night wore on the streets became crammed with excited people. At midnight, we called it a night and returned to our hostel.

The next day we made our long journey back. Thankfully, I managed to do a lot of reading on the train 🙂

Here is a paper I wrote in class on El Anatsui:

El Anatsui is one of Africa’s most celebrated contemporary artists. He is an artist whose work I find very inspiring. His ability to master various mediums and make thought provoking pieces makes him very successful. His multimedia work has been exhibited all over the world from places such as Cape Town, South Africa to California, United States of America. Among the several biennials in which he has showcased his work are the  3rd Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art in Moscow, 2009, the 52nd International Art Exhibition Venice Biennale in 2007 and 7th Biennale of Contemporary African Art,  Dak’Art Biennale  in Dakar, 2006.[1]

Anatsui was born in Anyako, Ghana in 1944. Many Nigerians celebrate him as a Nigerian artist since he has lived in Enugu since 1975.   His Ewe weaving heritage is pronounced in much of his work as are other West African indigenous traditions.[2] This might be because Anatsui has had an interest in immersing himself and unpacking various Ghanaian and Nigerian artistic traditions from a very early age. From 1975 until recently, he has been a professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. Now he is retired.

All of his work explores social, political, cultural and historical themes. These themes range from the daily lives of market women in Winneba, traditional textiles and the colonization.  This is illustrated in his wooden trays of Winneba 1969- 1975, terra-cotta vessels and heads 1976-1982, aquatint prints- 1986-87, wood relief wall panels and standing figures1980s – 1990s and Gawu[3] sculptures. The Gawu sculptures are part of his more recent works.[4]

One of the reasons I find El Anatsui’s work intriguing is because he is able to produce complex forms using conventional and non conventional methods. This is demonstrated in how he uses conventional sculpting materials such as wood and clay; then he applies modern techniques using a chainsaw, an oxyacetylene flame and manganese tailing.[5]

El Anatsui’s work reminds me of a quote in T.S Eliot’s essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent. Eliot says, “The difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.” From this I learn that successful art is art that acknowledges the historical elements, and in so doing embraces new creative developments. This is precisely what Anatsui exhibits in his work. He echoes Eliot by using the Twi term Sankofa to explain his creative process. Sankofa means to go back and retrieve.  Anatsui explains, “Sankofa syndrome was a reaction to a conscious and forcible attempt to denigrate a people’s culture and replace it with an extraneous one. As in all situations of this kind, it is recognized also that there are always elements of an invading culture which stay behind; you cannot obliterate it completely because every culture has its positive aspects. Thus the essence was neither a wholesale return to the past nor a total exclusion of external influence. The thrust was inward orientation and selectivity.”[6]

As a result of this, Anatsui’s Broken Pot series reference the ancient Nok terra-cotta and the Ile-Ife heads. They are a metaphor for broken societies, shattered cultures and time. His wooden wall panels reflect West Africa’s rich textile heritage, traditional motifs and ancient scripts. More specifically he draws from Adinkra, Kente, Akwete textile patterns. He is inspired by the Cameroon, Yoruba Aroko and Bolange scripts; and he manipulates Adinkra, Uli, Nsibidi motifs. This is also seen in his Gawu sculptures.

When I first learned about El Anatsui, I was immediately drawn to his shimmering Gawu sculptures that reminded me of Klimt. I loved the fact that they were intricately woven pieces of aluminum and copper wire made to resemble tapestries. What drew me to them was the fact that these were all found objects from labels of local Nigerian brands of whiskey, rum, vodka, and brandy.  They have names such as Chairman, Dark Sailor, King Solomon, Makossa, 007, Top Squad and Ecomog. This is not only an excellent way of recycling waste materials; it is a powerful way of expressing why Africa is facing the issues it is facing today. These issues include dependency through the form of neo Imperialism.

Anatsui’s work has helped me realize that as I look for ways in which to express myself through visual art, I can go back and pick from my own cultural history and reference other cultures that have influenced me. It has helped me to understand that it is important to master many forms of art including painting, sculpture and printmaking. This will give me many avenues in which to convey an idea. Most importantly, I have leaned to not limit myself in any way and explore as many cultural ideas as possible.


“”, 16 June 2010, <> (2 November 2010).

Haupt, Gerhard and Binder, Pat, “Universes in Universe”, <>, (2 November 2010).

National Museum of African Art. “El Anatsui Gawu”, <>, ( 2 November 2010).

Ottenburg, Simon, New Traditions of Nigeria / Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997,159.

Pearson Prentice Hall, 2001, 227.

Visona, Monica Blackmun, et al.  A History of Art in Africa. Upper Saddle River, NJ:

[1] 16 June 2010, <> (2 November 2010).

[2] Monica Blackmun Visona, et al.  A History of Art in Africa. ( Upper Saddle River, NJ:

Pearson Prentice Hall, 2001), 227

[3] Gawu is a word in Ewe, which has several potential meanings, including “metal” and “a fashioned cloak.”

[4]National Museum of African Art. El Anatsui Gawu,  <>, ( 2 November 2010).

[5] Dr. Gerhard Haupt and Pat Binder, Universes in Universe, <>,  (2 November 2010).

[6] Simon Ottenburg, New Traditions of Nigeria / Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group, (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997),159.


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