- El Anatsui, Ghanaian, b. 1944
- Born: Ghana
- Work Locations: Nsukka, Nigeria
About the Artist
El Anatsui [ah-nat-SOO-ee] was born 1944 in Anyako, Ghana—the youngest, he says, of his father’s 32 children. His mother died when he was quite young, and he was raised by an uncle in a Presbyterian mission. As was common in pre-Independent Ghana, school curriculum, and art school curriculum in particular, were almost entirely Western. Anatsui says this left him feeling restless and rootless and he began looking for ‘‘something that had more relationship to me, as someone growing up in an African country.’’
Anatsui is known for creating art out of found materials such as driftwood, clay, paper, and liquor-bottle tops. He draws on a combination of African aesthetic traditions as well as Western Art history. Plans for this specific work began sometime in 2006, when Curator of Native Arts Nancy Blomberg, along with then Curator of African Art Moyo Okediji, commissioned El Anatsui to create something specifically for the Denver Art Museum. To create his “metal cloths,” Anatsui enlists the help of skilled assistants who work with him in his studio cutting, flattening, and shaping metal liquor bottle tops into design blocks conceived by the artist. Anatsui carefully arranges the different elements on the floor of his studio and, once he is satisfied with the design, his assistants use copper wire to stitch the individual pieces together. Anatsui acknowledges the input of his assistants, noting that the “variety which is needed at this scale comes from the style and the feel of each individual hand.”
Anatsui is currently a Professor of Sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he has lectured since 1975. His work appears in numerous international and American art museums, including The British Museum in London, Le Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
What Inspired It
"Art grows out of each particular situation and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up.” - El Anatsui
While out one day, Anatsui came across a bag of liquor bottle tops that were sitting in a bush. He took them back to his studio thinking that he might be able to use them at some point. “I kept the bottle caps in the studio for several months until the idea eventually came to me that by stitching them together I could get them to articulate some statement,” says Anatsui. As the metal pieces were stitched together, he noticed that his artworks began to resemble fabric cloths. “Incidentally too, the colours of the caps seemed to replicate those of traditional kente cloths” (a West African weaving tradition).
While it would be easy to suggest that Anatsui is recycling materials in his artworks, he doesn’t see it that way. Rather, he describes his use of found materials as a “transformation” of those materials. For Anatsui, the inclusion of bottle caps suggests a link between European and African histories: “To me, the bottle tops encapsulate the essence of the alcoholic drinks which were brought to Africa by Europeans as trade items at the time of the earliest contact between the two peoples.”
When creating Rain Has No Father?, El Anatsui was inspired by the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. The silver cloth is perforated with slashing vertical elements symbolizing “the rain which gives way to life forms.” The three multicolored blocks spread across the top are formed from hundreds of pieces of metal carefully made into tiny open squares—perhaps suggesting clouds holding masses of rain droplets about to be released.
Each bottle top, once flattened, is about 4 inches long and 1 inch wide. Gina Laurin, DAM conservator, who worked on repairing the artwork before it was hung, estimates that 9,000 bottle tops were used to make this particular piece. Given the number of artworks Anatsui has created in the last several years, it is currently hard to find used tops. He now goes straight to the distillery to acquire the bottle caps, making newer shinier works.
Anatsui uses copper wire to hold each piece of aluminum in place. “The process of stitching, especially the repetitive aspect, slows down action and I believe makes thinking deeper,” says Anatsui. “It’s like the effect of a good mantra on the mind.”
The folds are created in the act of hanging the piece. Anatsui prefers museums to install the metal cloths and create folds. Rain Has no Father? arrived at the museum folded up inside a box. Curator Nancy Blomberg began experimenting with small prototypes—digital images on canvas, 8 ½ x 11 inches—to figure out how the piece would be hung in the gallery. While this was helpful, it was during installation that final decisions on how to best display the work of art were made. The curatorial, installation, and conservation staffs helped to devise a system of pulleys that allowed the DAM to hang the piece safely, as well as manipulate it to create the necessary folds. Installation crews spent a day hanging the work.
The surface of this piece is not solid. Light passes through, creating a shadow on the back wall.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Bring in a sheet or blanket and have the students work as a group to explore different ways to hang it. Let them experiment with different pulley systems to create unique folds in the fabric.
- El Anatsui takes a hard material, metal bottle tops, and makes it look very fluid and delicate. Discuss this transformation with the students. What are some other ways you can transform a material and make it appear as something completely different?
- For Anatsui, the inclusion of bottle caps suggests a link between European and African histories: “To me, the bottle tops encapsulate the essence of the alcoholic drinks which were brought to Africa by Europeans as trade items at the time of the earliest contact between the two peoples.” Have students research trade routes and the exchange of goods, ideas, and beliefs among various countries’ histories.
- The shadow created by Rain Has No Father? is an important part of the piece that Anatsui didn’t create in his studio or with bottle tops. Not all Anatsui pieces are hung so they create a shadow. The DAM’s is unusual because of the slanted wall. Discuss with students how sometimes projects can create un-planned for results.