From Street Corners to Sotheby's

Sculptor El Anatsui's work in cast-off metals has made its mark in the art world.
2 June, 2017
For modern African art, this has been a decade of increasing demand.
Opportunities for exhibits and installations have expanded for the artists, and so have audiences seeking to engage with African artists. That's also meant a lot of investor and collector demand, as is the case for El Anatsui – an artist who has created his sculptures for decades in cast-off materials that include aluminium bottle caps and wire.

At the recent modern and contemporary African art sale at Sotheby's auction in London, an Anatsui wall installation called "Earth Developing More Roots" sold for about USD$945,000. The 2011 piece was made of recycled aluminium bottle caps and copper wire, as was the previous "Paths to the Okro Farm," a 2006 work in aluminium and copper that sold for $1.4 million.
Images: Sotheby's
"I have experimented with quite a few materials," says the Ghanaian artist, who divides his time between his home country and Nigeria. "I also work with material that has witnessed and encountered a lot of touch and human use." Anatsui says he enjoys the energy and charge of the familiar materials handled and worn by human hands, when compared with other work that he has done with machines.
His studio assistants in southeast Nigeria work by flattening thousands of bottle caps in various colors, and then help to arrange them into patterns. Anatsui and his team play with the panels, laying them out on the floor or swinging them with a soft rustle in the air, to create new and different metal works.

What they have in common, though, are the recycled or found materials that Anatsui says he uses to explore themes of African experience with colonialism, and connections with waste and environment.
The colorful and densely patterned fields of "gawu" fabric woven from the liquor-bottle caps tell the story of economic and cultural exchange in Africa under colonial rule and in the postcolonial era, he says. The sculptures – often in wood and ceramic too – connect ideas about function in the objects of ordinary life and various stages of existence, with the role of language in deciphering visual symbols.

"The link between Africa, Europe and America is very much part of what is behind my work with bottle caps," the artist explains on his website. In part, that is because Anatsui reclaims what he sees as once part of the slave trade, the trading of alcohol, and commits it to an expressive and exploring purpose. That expression includes his ability to collect the castaways of consumption and turn them into high art.
Banner image: El Anatsui/Art News