Research-Personal Specialism: Initial Project Work- Reviewing and Editing Work- El Anatsui, Sculptor-Metallic Fabrics

Through continuing to update my Pinterest pages for research purposes I soon realised that most of my images concerning installations and tapestry centred around one sculptor…El Anatsui from Ghana. I naturally gravitated to the scale, intricacy and colour of his work.

El Anatsui Bleeding Takari II (2007) Found bottle caps-foil seals from liquor bottles MoMA, New York

These installations are made up of thousands of aluminium pieces sourced from alcohol recycling stations and sewn together with copper wire, which are then transformed from waste into metallic cloth-like sculptures or tapestries. El Anatsui relates to the materials used as alcohol has been a central trade commodity in colonial and modern Africa. Colour has also been used to signify key concepts of destruction, decay, brokenness with birth, rebirth and regeneration as in the red portions of the metallic surface of Bleeding Takari II. The tapestry appears to be blood stained and refers to anything including person, object, country and continent. As an academic, teacher and artist he has tried to address a range of social, political and historical concerns through his work and capitalised upon a vast range of media and processes to do so throughout his career.

EL Anatsui Gravity and Grace (2015) Discarded liquor caps Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
New World Map (2009) Found aluminium and copper wire Jack Shainman Gallery New York

Principally the artist raises questions about ethnic identity by combining Traditional African Techniques and imagery with abstraction which is based within Western art. New World Map references the history of Africa including themes of cosmopolitanism, globalisation and consumption as if a template for understanding Africa here and now. In New World Map Anatsui has been concerned with world history and the future of international relations with the individual experience of everyday life. He has literally redrawn the continents to connect societies that fused historically in the colonial period yet developed as a patchwork in their modern-day existence(Bonham’s, 2019)

New World Map (2009)-Detailing Found aluminium and copper wire Jack Shainman Gallery New York

Initially the artist flattened and connected each bottle top with copper wire to form large hanging tapestries. More recently the artist reformed the individual tops which creates increased variation in colour, shape and pattern resulting in intricate circular, square and rectangular designs within the sculptural installations. As the artists techniques developed so did the scale of his work. Such installations with their shifting folds represent the changing shapes of the world. Within Man’s Cloth (and Women’s Cloth) themes of memory and loss continue to be explored and communicated. Ongoing concerns with the damages experienced through the colonial period are focused upon, of the trauma and fragility coupled with the dynamism and strength of African tradition and history. The luminescent colours especially gold relate back to the colonial past as a British colony called the Gold Coast and the reference to cloth signalled the significance of textiles in African societies and historical trade networks.

El Anatsui Man’s Cloth (2005) Found aluminium and copper wire Jack Shainman Gallery New York

As Dr Young (2015) stated Old Man’s Cloth hangs like a large tapestry, but when we look closer, it’s easy to become captivated by the small metal fragments that comprise the work in hundreds. Arranged within a shifting grid of stripes and blocks of colour, the components form their own internal maps across the surface, melding into vertical gold bands, interlocking black and silver rows, or a deviant red piece floating in a field of black. While   laid flat during its construction, it is contorted and manipulated during installation, so that the individual metal pieces can catch the light from every angle. This brilliant visual effect makes its humble origins all the more impressive.

 Dr. Allison Young, “El Anatsui, Old Man’s Cloth,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed November 24, 2019, https://smarthistory.org/el-anatsui-old-mans-cloth/.

El Anatsui Man’s Cloth (2005)-Detailing Found aluminium and copper wire Jack Shainman Gallery New York
El Anatsui (Ghanaian, born 1944) Awakened (2012) Sculpture, found aluminium and copper wire including tassels 133 x 105 in. (337.8 x 266.7 cm.) Shainman Gallery, New York

Ultimately this artist has managed to transform waste into stunning metal tapestries to be admired as beautiful pieces of art. He has created rippling silver and multicoloured fabric installations with colour schemes akin to his West African origins which span textiles and sculpture. In doing so El Anatsui has explored key themes in African history which are of cultural significance. These massive sheets of metal which can envelop building facades belie the man hours required to construct and their overall craftmanship. 

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