El Anatsui

In his practice, El Anatsui focuses his energy on the gathering of ideas, concerned more with the process and concept rather than composition or completeness. He formulates ides that create significance and transform the most ordinary, everyday objects into compelling symbols of humanity. Acknowledging the fact that these commonplace objects have a history of their own, he weaves many constructs together. These have a broader connection to both the historic and the present-day cultural and economic market place.

The juxtaposition of his work invokes contrasting viewpoints of the post-colonial framework and context used in his work. The human consequence and legacy of the colonisation of Africa and the subsequent slave trade that followed or a nostalgic reflection of the failures of post-colonial development in Africa. A sharp contrast is also seen in the hand-made quality of his pieces. The survival of hand-made processes is difficult, against the mass produced of the consumer age and the globalized world.

Anatsui persistently experiments with each material. With painstaking attention to detail, he analyses the creative possibilities for communicating his theoretical ideas. The culmination of these ideas, he resolves his experiments into final pieces where the discarded materials are completely transformed into ethereal yet imposing works of art. In his book Re-envisioning the Contemporary Art Canon: Perspectives in a Global World, Iskin reflects: “His interest in process and medium continues to shift but is consistently framed in a recognizable modernist language – as a quest toward greater enlightenment, better form and effacy.” (Iskin, 2016)

A bag of discarded bottle-tops that Anatsui decided to flatten and stitch together with copper wire. He consequently devised beautiful metal structures that possess the fluidity of fabric. The creation of these pieces lead to his global recognition that subsequently positioned him at the forefront of today’s Contemporary Art Scene.

Iskin also considers the symbolic relationship between discarded bottle-tops and the history of Africa. A commonplace object that bears relevance not only to the African history but also to the global diasporic community. Historically, Europeans would import alcohol from the West Indies to trade for slaves. This alcohol is now made locally in Nigeria and the bottles recycled, however the bottle tops are currently discarded.

For instance, the artist’s interests in nomadism, displacement and migration – central preoccupations of contemporary life – are long standing and varied. He even has taken to describing his very large and complicated bottle-cap works as a “nomadic aesthetic” because they can be folded and cinched for packing and transport all over the world and because their very material existence speaks of long-established trade routes. (Iskin, 2016)

An association with the bottle tops can also be made to the traditional Kente cloth from Anatsui’s homeland, Ghana. Kente cloth is a vibrant fabric made from silk and cotton strips that are interwoven together. When stitched together the bottle-tops became fluid with the colours echoing the colours of the traditional Kente cloth. It is expected that metal would be stiff, cold and rigid, but these pieces when stitched become soft and pliable like fabric or cloth.

His attention to detail and focus on the repurposing of found materials to formulate his ideas is clearly demonstrated in the piece Tsia Tsia (2013). This piece is made from his signature chain-mail of aluminium bottle-tops, printing plates and discarded roofing sheets. Squares of vibrant colour are woven together with copper wire lending a sense of vibrancy and illumination, akin to a curtain of light. The piece also possesses spontaneity that cannot be replicated, suggesting a freedom from restraint and convention.

In transforming ordinary objects, that would normally be thrown away, Anatsui sees this practice as repurposing and transformation rather than recycling. His work conveys considerable social relevance to the “single use” consumerism we experience in today’s world. Herman speaks of Anatsui’s resourcefulness and the many associations with his work through his bottle-tops.

Using it to make art, he in turn makes a statement. The layers of his work are many: it is repurposed beauty; it’s a comment on world issues such as industrial waste; it’s a communal endeavour made by teams of people; it’s endlessly flexible, never hanging the exact same way twice; it’s inexpensive, created from literal trash; it’s large and powerful and yet portable enough to fold down and fit into a suitcase. (Herman, 2016)

Anatsui’s work has a subconscious element that alludes to his Ghanaian cultural heritage. He establishes layers of social, cultural and philosophical principles that are instantly recognisable to those of Ghanaian birth right. The Kente and Adinkra Cloth patterns are reflected in the metallic cloth structures he creates, drawing parallels with local textiles. This serves as a reflection of his inherent relationship with the Ewe traditions and their historical influence on his work.

Silk and cotton, coveted for the vibrant colours unachievable from local dyes, were often also exchanged for slaves. The local Ewe and Asante weavers unravelled the silk and cotton and transformed them into the traditional Kente and Adinkra cloths. The metallic cloths of Anatsui pay homage to this humanitarian history and collective memory.

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