Todays guest post comes from fine artist Adejoke Tugbiyele. In 2013 Adejoke assisted world-renowned, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui with the installation of his sculpture “Ala”, in the Smithsonian Gardens. As she prepares to show with artist Nnenna Okore at the Joburg Art Fair, Adejoke shares her experience working with El Anatsui in this week’s Guest Voices.
Working with El Anatsui
Working with El Anatsui was a dream come true. It could not have felt any better to do so at The Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art. Before me stood, on the one hand, an artist whose reputation deems him an institution by himself, and on the other, an institution which promotes and preserves the legacy of artists like El Anatsui. I do not come from a family of artists. Like many children of Nigerian parents, I was encouraged to go into the medical field. In fact, I went to college as a pharmacy major for two years right after high school. Clearly, that was not the role the universe intended for me. I quit and eventually went on to study architecture.
Why is this significant? It is significant because despite my telling him that I was graduate sculpture student at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), El kept introducing me to people as an architect. As any graduate student would, I showed him images of my work during one of our strolls through the Museum’s African art galleries, asking for a critique of some sort. A man of few words… he merely smiled. Sure enough, and before I knew it, he was requesting detailed sketches and technical drawings of his pryamid installation for the Smithsonian Gardens. This task was not as easy at it sounds. I often had to switch back and forth between a metric ruler to one in inches and feet, the latter being the system I’ve used most of my life here in the United States. El didn’t care and remarked that our system in the U.S was “very colonial.”
During the installation we became short on the mirrored plexiglass that was used in the construction of El’s pyramid, a delicate material which was meant to be inserted underneath of sheets of cassava graters in pre-specified areas. I sketched out a rough estimate on paper of the total number of existing mirrors and those needed, and sent them to Anthony Stellaccio, the project manager for Earth Matters. We corresponded back and forth and a decision was finally made on how many more mirrors to purchase. I was glad that my experience in design and construction management came in handy in supporting Karen Milbourne (curator), Anthony, and their team at the Smithsonian.
Over time, it became apparent why El valued my help. While installing the pyramid in Washington D.C, he was simultaneously preparing for two other exhibitions in Amsterdam and London respectively. That London project recently won him the prestigious £25,000 Charles Wollaston Award for his work, TSIATSIA – searching for connection, 2013. El took several breaks to his hotel room to manage the London project from D.C. and he must have anticipated that he would have to do the same in Amsterdam. I was thrilled when he said I could join him in Amsterdam as his assistant (or architect, I suppose) to manage the installation at ArtZuid. This was paid work, whereas at the Smithsonian I was one of the four or five volunteer assistants selected by Karen Milbourne. I should also mention that the South African artist and one of the artists in Earth Matters, Ledelle Moe, initially recommended me to Karen. Ledelle was a professor of Sculpture at MICA and gave me very inspiring critiques in my studio.
I can’t thank the Smithsonian Museum enough for the wonderful opportunity of working with El Anatsui. The volunteer program is very special and one that I highly recommend graduate students should take advantage of. The exhibition Earth Matters is genius in its selection of artworks that represent a continent whose land has, and will, always matter.
Adejoke Tugbiyele and El Anatsui Doug Johnston, Adejoke Tugbiyele and El Anatsui
El Anatsui (b. 1944, Ghana)
Ala, Site-specific installation, 2013
Master of Fine Art, Sculpture (2013)
U.S. Fulbright Student Fellow (2013-14)