Nigeria-based sculptor El Anatsui takes hundreds, if not thousands, of every day, mundane materials and transforms them into monumental works. El Anatsui has won many awards and prizes throughout his career, starting with an honorable mention at the 44th Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy. By 2008, the Museum of Art and Design in New York honored him with the Visionaries Award.
Born in Anyako, Ghana, El Anatsui was born the youngest of 32 children in 1944 and raised by his uncle after the loss of his mother. Trained at the College of Art, University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, he worked primarily with wood and created sculptures that stayed true to Ghanaian culture. In 1975, he left Ghana to teach at the University of Nigeria. El Anatsui preferred to work with wood, clay, and found objects such as metal bottle caps. He still lives and works in Nigeria to this day, with his studio a short walk away from the university.
Repurposing Discarded Materials into Art with Purpose
Identified as assemblage art, El Anatsui takes many different materials and unconventional materials to make exquisite large-scale tapestry-like installations and breathtaking mosaics that depict the rich traditions and customs of Africa, while also hinting at its truths, including its afflicted history with slavery and issues with consumption and the environment. These three-dimensional, complex assemblages of colorful textures explore allusive cultural themes that engage Africa’s past and present.
Using recycled materials like printing plates, old milk tins, iron nails, railway sleepers, and driftwood, El Anatsui aims to highlight how discarded materials can be re-used and turned into something magnificent.
“Mr.Anatsui’s art also displays an intense involvement with the postcolonial experience, first in the glyphs and nicks of the wood sculptures, and later in each bottle cap.” – The New York Times
In 2017, he became the first artist from Ghana to be awarded the international art prize, Praemium Imperiale, which is awarded by the Imperial Family of Japan. In the same year, he was awarded the Lorenzo il Magnifico Lifetime Achievement Award, XIth at the Florence Biennale in Florence, Italy. And in 2015, he was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice biennale.
El Anatsui’s first solo exhibition was in New York’s Brooklyn Museum in 2013: Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui featured over 30 works in metal and wood, including a dozen wall and floor sculptures. His most celebrated works to date include: “Ink Splash II” (1999), the image directly above, “In the World But Don’t Know the World” (2009), the featured image of the article, “BleedingTakari II” (2007), “Tiled Flower Garden” (2012) and more.
El Anatsui’s Studio Process
It all began when El Anatsui found a plastic bag full of bottle caps in the trash. He flattened and fastened the aluminum caps together to create massive compositions. Because these mosaics would take hundreds of thousands of man hours to do alone, El Anatsui employs a team of assistants who work with him in what he describes as a “collaborative and contemplative setting.”
El Anatsui’s studio is located in southeastern Nigeria; a 10-20-minute walk from the University of Nigeria campus. He describes his studio as a sacred place, full of “reflection and thinking.” He reminds himself to be quiet whenever he enters as his team works in as much silence as possible.
For each new pattern, he shows his team how it’s done; ensuring they maintain physical contact and constant handling of the materials to ensure they get the texture just right. Each member of the team will create individual “blocks” that consist of over200 bottle caps. He then takes these blocks and lays them out on the ground, playing with the possibilities.
The whole process may take multiple rearrangements and shifting of the blocks until he finds a pattern that feels right. He will go as far as photographing the work to see how they translate visually in images. By taking materials that have been cast off, El Anatsui explores the longevity of everyday objects when taken and appreciated for its potential to tell a story – one that promotes awareness and strikes a conversation about Africa’s economy and culture. “The link between Africa, Europe, and America is very much part of what is behind my work with bottle caps.” – El Anatsui
El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale
El Anatsui’s Triumphant Scale retrospective is the most comprehensive collection of El Anatsui’s works to date. Running from March 8th, 2019 to July 28th, 2019, the presentation occupies the entire East Wing of Haus der Kunst in Munich. Major funding came from the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne with significant support from an anonymous donor.
El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale takes visitors on the artist’s journey, spanning five decades. Beyond his widely recognized bottle-cap mosaics, the exhibition also features his lesser-known works such as wall reliefs, ceramic sculptures, prints, sketchbooks, and drawings from the 1970s – 1990s.
Haus der Kunst looks deep into the meaning of El Anatsui’s chosen materials, describing his process of cutting, flattening, twisting, folding and connecting of thousands of these bottle caps together with copper wire as a symbol of making “human communities out of connected individual subjectivities.” Because the bottle caps come from hard liquors used by Europeans as currency, they symbolize a “means of subjugation during an era of transatlantic slavery and colonization.”
Monumental Second Wave
“Art is a reflection on life. Life isn’t something we can cut and fix. It’s always in a state of flux.” – El Anatsui
El Anatsui created “Second Wave” for the façade of Haus der Kunst — the installation consisted of about 10,000 plates used in offset printing. To date, it is El Anatsui’s largest work spanning 361-foot-long and longer than a football field. It consists of 22 panels which are each 33 feet high and over 13 feet wide — the largest solo installation ever of a black African artist in Europe.
The title is said to reference the permanent wave of the Eisbach — small channel off the Isar River in downtown Munich that turns the city into most unlikely surfing destination. The unused plates for the installation came from a Munich printing house; because the company produces newspapers, “Second Wave” is also meant to portray the significance of carrying information. The massive quantity of materials used is intended to represent the flood of information and the challenges we face.
The installation Second Wave also touches upon the controversial history of the Paul Ludwig Troost’s building, famed Nazi architecture of the Haus der Kunst museum, which was first opened by Adolf Hitler in 1937 as a temple to German national art, now reborn as a flagpost art destination for the contemporary exhibitions. Anatsui’s papier mâché wall-like arrangement of printers’ plates creates an appearance of scaffolding of building — Haus der Kunst that is still undergoing a ‘re-purposing’ of its own identity when history turns and therefore must reinvent.