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2013 El Anatsui in the Courtyard

The Summer Exhibition now regularly exceeds its interior gallery spaces and occupies part of the Courtyard where visitors to the Royal Academy transition between the bustle of Piccadilly and the Academy’s home in Burlington House. As such, the Courtyard has become an outdoor gallery of the Summer Exhibition for the display of large-scale installations, often commissioned by the Exhibition’s Coordinator. These are the first works to greet the visitor, arguably setting the tone for what is to come once inside the rooms of the Summer Exhibition. In 2013, the artist El Anatsui created TSIATSIA—searching for connection, a monumental work made from aluminium bottle tops which covered the façade of the Royal Academy (Fig. 1). At the time, it was the largest wall sculpture in this medium that El Anatsui (EA) had created. In this interview, we discuss the complex processes of its commission, installation, and reception. The interview was conducted by Sarah Victoria Turner (SVT) with the assistance of Elisabeth Lalouschek (EL), Artistic Director of October Gallery, in 2018.

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SVT: Could you tell me how the commission came about?

EL: Edith Devaney, Curator and Head of Summer Exhibitions at the Royal Academy, contacted me for the Academy's 2012 Summer Exhibition (coordinated by Tess Jaray), as she had seen an El Anatsui’s installation on the façade at the Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, some years before. She thought it would be wonderful to clad the Royal Academy in a similar way. This was both a challenging and magnificent idea. 

SVT: How did the project develop?

EL: Hanging such a large-scale work is complex. After meeting with the Royal Academy’s team and developing the installation with curators, the Academy’s structural engineer, and architect—we devised a method to install a structure on to the Academy’s Grade II listed building, that would eventually hold the immense metal hanging. Throughout this process, El Anatsui gave advice or attended relevant meetings, when in London.

The work itself was going to be huge: twenty-five metres in length by fifteen metres in height made of eight vertical sections. The project planning and execution of such a large-scale work took us beyond 2012 and the work was eventually installed on the façade of the Royal Academy in 2013. 

SVT: How was the work actually installed?

EL: The idea to clad the Royal Academy was going to be a big statement. The preparatory work was extensive, but due to various constraints, the time allocated to installation was short—two days over a weekend. The installation was conducted by a specialist company. It involved two cherry-pickers that hoisted the large strips onto the underlying metal and net structure. El Anatsui and I were present throughout the process, directing the finer details, such as the creation of folds and undulations to complete the work of art.

SVT: So the work cannot just hang freely?

EL: There is often a misconception that El Anatsui’s work can be suspended from the top of a building and hang freely. In reality, the sculpture needs a support structure behind it, so that it can be attached to this structure at various points, in order to distribute the weight and to create a free flowing surface.

SVT: TSIATSIA—searching for connection is a monumental work. How long did it take to make? Did you have to alter or adapt your process of working because of its scale?

EA (El Anatsui): The physical realization of the work took around four months. During this period, I worked with over thirty-five assistants for six, and at times seven, days a week. 

SVT: The work won the prestigious Charles Wollaston Prize. Can you describe your reaction to hearing that you had won?

EA: It came as a great surprise to me when I received the news I had won. At that time, I was exhibiting as a guest artist and was not yet an Honorary Academician. I had presumed that the Prize was only awarded to members and not guest artists, so it was a shock, indeed.

SVT: You were elected Honorary Royal Academician in 2014, in the following year. Can you say more about what being an Honorary RA involves, and how you interact with the Royal Academy and the Summer Exhibition now that you have this position within the institution?

EA: Being part of the Royal Academy’s calendar which repeats annually has a way of keeping one alive and growing. Exhibiting alongside and interacting with some of the Royal Academy’s renowned artists provides much energy and inspiration. Since my induction into the Summer Exhibition four years ago, I have not missed one and it is an experience I look forward to with much anticipation year after year.

SVT: The Summer Exhibition is something of an institution in British cultural life, but could you say something about how the Exhibition is perceived internationally? Do the artists you work with, for example, the students you taught at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, consider it as an exhibition to submit their work to?

EA: Not every artist is aware that they can submit works for the Summer Exhibition, especially students. I was invited as guest in 2013, as soon as I saw the impressive roster of members, it was thrilling for my students to know that I am part of the history of sculptors whose works I refer to in my teaching of various attitudes, styles, philosophies, and approaches. If participation is open as the question implies, I am certain many artists, including students the world over, would be keen to apply and considered for the Exhibition.

Figure 2

Timelapse footage of the installation of El Anatsui's TSIATSIA – searching for connection on the facade of Burlington House on the occasion of the 245th Summer Exhibition, 2013.

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Explore the 2013 catalogue