El Anatsui

El Anatsui
El Anatsui, In the World But Don’t Know the World?, 2009

Imposing in scale, sumptuous in colour and texture, and yet produced from everyday materials, El Anatsui’s works are as visually rich as they are laden with associative possibilities.

Anatsui’s hanging sculptures of exquisite colour and delicacy, such as In the World But Don’t Know the World, are made with aluminium wrappings and bottle-caps. Anatsui resists the description of his works in terms of ‘recycling’, he is instead interested in the metamorphosis that materials undergo; metal becoming a fluid and fragile textile, and discarded waste transformed into a beautiful and precious work of art.

Rather than professional art materials, Anatsui chooses to work with found objects, saying ‘I don’t think that working with such prescribed materials would be very interesting to me – industrially produced colours for painting. I believe that colour is inherent in everything, and it’s possible to get colour from around you, and that you’re better off picking something which relates to your circumstances and your environment than going to buy a ready-made colour.’1 By using these found materials, Anatsui’s works resonate with the history and meanings inherent in the objects he chooses. Alcohol was a commodity that Europeans traded for slaves in West Africa and major European companies were founded on the wealth produced by exporting gin, schnapps and brandy to Africa.

Textiles too have a rich history, both as an object of trade between Europe and Africa, but also as a physical record themselves. Anatsui has said ‘...[i]f there were a direct link between the bottle caps and textile cloth it would be that they bear names referring to incidents, persons, to historic or current themes. Take, for instance, the Ecomog Gin: it takes its name from the regional rapid deployment forces that terminated the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia... Similarly, Kente draperies carry names such as “Takekpe le Angola” (‘conference in Angola’) or they are named after characters.’2

Anatsui realises his enormous works with the help of a team of assistants, but he does not create a sketch for them to follow, instead wanting the materials to take the lead. ‘[The assistants] are more a part of the process; they are not all the time just hands. Working this way, I have got to understand both the material and the different touches or styles of each assistant. It is like conducting an orchestra of musicians each with peculiar performing skill.’3 Once completed the works are never fixed, but are reconfigured for new locations and environments, forever changing and renewing.

1 El Anatsui, Asi (David Krut Publishing in association with October Gallery, 2006) unpaginated.
2 El Anatsui as quoted in Britta Schmitz ‘Who Knows Tomorrow – Who Knows Today’ in Udo Kittelmann, Chika Okeke- Agulu and Britta Schmitz (ed.) Who Knows Tomorrow, Berlin (Verlag der Walther König, 2012) p.xx.
3 El Anatsui, Asi, unpaginated.


Trained as a sculptor at the College of Art, University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, before starting to teach at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1975.
Recent solo shows include El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa (organised by the Museum for African Art, New York, USA); Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, 2010 and USA tour 2011 – 2013; A Fateful Journey: Africa in the Works of El Anatsui, National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan, 2010 and national museum tour; El Anatsui: Gawu, Oriel Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno, (in association with October Gallery, London), touring UK, Ireland and USA 2003 – 2008.
El Anatsui’s work is regularly shown in group exhibitions internationally and is held in major international collections notably the British Museum, London, UK; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA; The Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, France.


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