El Anatsui – art made from bottle tops

I’ve been dying for a while to see the work of El Anatsui, a Ghanaian sculptor active for much of his career in Nigeria, who has drawn particular international attention for his iconic “bottle-top installations”—huge sheets of metallic ‘textile’ made of thousands of pieces of aluminium sourced from alcohol recycling stations and sewn together with copper wire.
Photographs of these have intrigued and inspired me, but because they are three-dimensional works with a lot of texture, photos cannot even begin to compare with seeing them ‘live’.
At the moment six of these works are exhibited at the Conciergerie in Paris, and a visit there exceeded my expectations.  A former royal residence open to the city, the Conciergerie has had many uses over the centuries, including becoming a detention centre under the Terror.
Under the medieval vaults of the Salle des Gens d’armes (Hall of the Soldiers—the 14th-century refectory of the French King’s officers), El Anatsui has produced a poetic installation introducing five natural elements: water, wind, wood, metal and stone. He calls the installation  “En quête de liberté” (Seeking freedom)
Besides the six metallic sculptures, using textile and video projection, he has conjured up a reproduction of the Seine, as if two of its arms run through the chamber on old railway sleepers, reflecting the images of waves traversed by the sun.
The sculptures, made from bottle tops and strips of flattened tin cans, hang in the fireplaces. I have taken some detail photos to show the texture, but the actual experience defies description.

Born in Ghana in 1944, El Anatsui creates objects based on traditional Ghanaian beliefs, and is interested in the destruction, transformation, and regeneration of everyday objects. Very few artists make it to the top while living outside metropolitan centres, but El Anatsui has conquered the planet while living and working in the Nigerian university town of Nsukka.
Being overawed by the endless patience it takes to construct these sculptures, as well as the vision necessary to design work on such a large scale, I became curious to see what his methods of production were. I came upon the following fascinating video:

Bleu et rose. Picasso

There’s no need to describe Pablo Picasso—everyone knows about him, and most of us have come across one or more of his works in an exhibition or museum, since he was extremely prolific.
For me, most enchanting were his early works, the Blue and Rose periods, which visitors to Paris have the chance to admire at the Musée d’Orsay. The exhibition is a collaboration between the museum and the Musée National Picasso, and has gathered major works that focus on the period from 1900 to 1906.



Picasso was a fantastic draughtsman, and could produce detailed academic drawings with great ease. In his paintings, however, he expressed his highly personal viewpoint, often distorting body parts, foreshortening limbs or elongating fingers.



It is difficult to comprehend today, but at the time he was derided  for this by art critics, and floundered in the teeming artistic milieu of Paris, until he was picked up by American art patron Gertrude Stein. Although they did not speak each other’s language, they became friends, and she had a major influence on his career. He painted her portrait, which everyone agreed did not look at all like her, but which eventually became one his most famous portraits. After 1919 he was giving her paintings for free, since he had become so successful that she could no longer afford to buy them!



Picasso painted prostitutes, blind men, drunks, but also babies and children. He was moved by the notions of family and motherhood. His palette made up of blues gives off an aura of melancholy. He was also inspired by other artists of his time, such as Van Gogh and Gaugin, whose influence can be seen in some of his work.



It is amazing that these paintings were made when Picasso was only 20 or 21. The blue period lasted until 1904, when hints of pink started creeping into his palette, to evolve into the rose period,  where joyful pinks, reds and  oranges dominated, and his subjects were harlequins and circus people. This lasted for just two years, and ended with the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the first painting of the cubist period.



It is also astonishing how prolific Picasso was. He left behind tens of thousands of works,  even though, when he was young and broke, he reused canvasses and even burnt drawings for warmth.



Anyone within reach of Paris should go and see this exhibition—it is just wonderful. I left unsure whether to be greatly inspired or simply throw my pens and brushes in the bin and take up knitting!


Out of Africa

A visit to the Louis Vuitton Fondation of Contemporary Art in Paris is a must, if only to admire (gape at!) the building, which was designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. Construction of the museum began in March 2008, and was plagued by many lawsuits and appeals from people who were against building in the Bois de Boulogne, the largest park in Paris. However, the permits were finally obtained and the museum opened in October 2014. Its cost was supposed to be $143 million, but, according to some sources, it finally rose to around $780 million.

Be that as it may, it is an extravagant structure which definitely adds to the must-see list of Parisian sights, and those responsible for its design and construction have won several architectural awards in France and the US.



The building takes the form of a boat’s sails inflated by the wind. These glass sails envelop the “iceberg”, a series of shapes with white, flowery terraces; they are made of 3,584 laminated glass panels, each unique and specifically curved to fit the shapes drawn by the architect. The building incorporates interesting water features as well as commissioned  site-specific installations by, amongst others, Ellsworth Kelly, Olafur Eliasson and Adrián Villar Rojas.


View of the lobby from above

The LVF  houses an extensive permanent collection, including works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gilbert & George and Jeff Koons. This summer, a major temporary exhibition showcased art from sub-Saharan Africa, made up of three distinct exhibits: offerings from the foundation’s own archive, a selection from Jean Pigozzi’s prestigious collection and an overview of the best in South African contemporary art.

It is obviously difficult for one exhibition to encompass the scope and variety of a continent made up of 54 different countries, but there was terrific work from artists we rarely see, or sometimes have never seen at all. Despite all the talk about the globalisation of the contemporary art world, art from Africa continues to be woefully under-represented.

I personally was galvanized and overwhelmed by what was on offer. Since I am no expert on the subject of African art, and it would be easy enough for anyone to look up any information needed, I will only attempt here to show a small sample of the works which enthused me.

Benin artist Romuald Hazoumé is of prestigious lineage, since his ancestor was a high priest of the Fâ at the court of the King of Port-Novo. His art reflects his close connection with his Yoruba culture, where masks hold center stage: his were made of recycled plastic cans and other household objects.



Rigobert Nimi is from The Congo and a lot of his work uses found objects. He had contributed enormous constructions resembling amazing imaginary spaceships.



Senegalese artist Seni Awa Kamara learnt pottery from her mother, who made everyday objects, but developed her own radically innovative style. She creates female figures to whom are attached many tiny statues meant to represent children, in animal or human form.



Activist Chéri Samba is inspired by everyday life and touches on a wide range of subjects from current political, economic, social and cultural events in Kinshasa – such as ecological problems, corruption, tragic events, etc. He incorporates text in his work, both in French and Lingala, as in the painting below, which highlights the problem of obtaining clean water.



Bodys Isek Kingelez, who is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, builds models of buildings with unusual shapes and bright colors, using recovered materials. Some are individual constructions, and some entire urban simulations, such as his enchanting rendering of an imaginary Manhattan, below.



Artist Abu Bakarr Mansaray, from Sierra Leone, taught himself chemistry, mathematics and electronics using school textbooks. In 1998 he fled the civil war and moved to the Netherlands where, in his art, he evokes the war and its traumas, but also UFOs and aliens of which he considers himself the interpreter. He draws upon his scientific knowledge to produce monumental drawings using pencil, ballpoint pen, felt-tip markers and colored pencils.


A Heath Robinson-esque contraption, and, below, a detail from another painting.


Artist John Goba was initiated by his grandmother into a secret female society. Inspired by this, he makes statues evoking traditional knowledges and tales of various ethnic groups, using wood and porcupine quills.



Benin artist Calixte Dakpogan comes from a family of ironmongers. He too reinvents the mask, either using found materials, or cheap everyday made in China objects, such as safety pins, beads, ballpoint pens etc.



Photographer Seydou Keïta (Mali, 1921-2001), is considered one of the greatest photographers of the late 20th century, and was one of the few artists whose work I’d seen before. Through a large number of exceptional portraits he painted a testimony of Malian society from the end of the Second World War through to Independence.



Even a short break for lunch was not devoid of artistic stimulation, since we sat under this lovely installation of paper fish in the restaurant.



After lunch I continued upstairs, to the part of the exhibition entitled Being There, showcasing  some of the most important South African artists. Legends of art such as William Kentridge, Jane Alexander, David Goldblatt, David Koloane and Sue Williamson were featured – artists who helped shape the local art scene and also influenced the younger generation, many of whom were also exhibited here.  Sadly, by then I was suffering from a surfeit of visual stimulation, so I skimmed over most of the works and only paused for a disturbing installation by David Koloane, whose work is devoted to the chaotic energy of Johannesburg. His art has distinct political and social overtones, and street dogs, ubiquitous in the townships, put in multiple appearances.



Last, but not least, I sat for a few minutes to watch the latest video production of William Kentridge, Notes Towards a Model Opera, which played simultaneously on three large screens (video below). Kentridge, an artist who experienced apartheid as a white man, has long been a favorite of mine.

It would have been nice to have been able to go back before the exhibition finished (on September 4), because it was impossible to take in such a wide range of extraordinary talent in detail and all at once. Even in this post it was too much to incorporate all the photographs I took, or present all the artists whose work I liked.







Anselm Kiefer at the Musée Rodin

On a brief trip to Paris, I managed to squeeze in two art exhibitions, and it was really worth it.

Les cathédrales de Frances. Painting by Anselm Kiefer

The first was at the Musée Rodin, where the German artist Anselm Kiefer was asked to produce art to mark the centenary of the death of Auguste Rodin. The idea was to invite the viewer to consider the aesthetic concerns shared by the two artists.
Anselm Kiefer was given the freedom to create a series of works incorporating debris that Rodin produced while making his sculptures, such as offcuts and discarded molds.To echo this, elsewhere in the museum displays were altered to present previously unseen plaster works by Rodin.



The Musée Rodin is housed in a 1730 building, the Hôtel Biron, which was initially a private residence, before being rented by the Society of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus. It was then taken over by the state and left vacant for years. In the early 20th century rooms were rented out for studios to artists such as Jean Cocteau, Isadora Duncan and Rainer Maria Rilke, amongst others. Henri Matisse rented space for his school of art, and then Rodin – after Rilke, who later became his secretary, let him know about the building – joined the group, and gradually took over the whole building, where he worked for years, until his death.

The building and gardens are beautiful and perfectly maintained. The main part of Kiefer’s work is presented in a room just inside the outer wall, which was built as a chapel for the needs of of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus Society.



Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945 and studied with Joseph Beuys and Peter Dreher during the 1970s. In his work, he unflinchingly confronts his culture’s dark past, and adresses controversial historical issues.



Kiefer is a romantic, with a huge visual vocabulary. He uses architecture, amongst other images, to convey the weight of history. The three paintings in the room are diptychs, large canvases whose surface is multi-layered and textured. Thick layers of gesso and paint have been mixed with other substances such as glass and clay to give them texture. Kiefer then scratches and carves into the surface to reveal the layers beneath. In these particular paintings, molten lead has been splattered on top, and parts of it have been bent and curled backwards to add a third dimension.


Detail: The lead has been curled back, still bearing the imprint of the layer beneath it, which it reveals.

The paintings are difficult to describe and photographs can never do them justice (even better ones than mine!). They have to be experienced – and, without the slightest exaggeration, I can say they are breathtaking.

Kiefer also makes installations, in this case using dried sunflowers and branches, sunflower seeds coated in gold leaf, earth, stones and the aforementioned clay debris.
In my opinion, he is one of the greatest artists of our time, due to his enormous scope and erudition, his use of a huge variety of materials and his production of monumental works. I might not love everything he does – which I think is a good thing – but I never cease to be surprised and impressed every time I encounter another of his works.



I finished up by walking in the gardens to visit old favorites, such as The Thinker.


P. S. I still need to write up the second exhibition I saw, on African Art at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, so stay tuned!