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El Anatsui: The Artist Between Earth and Heaven

by Rachel Vancelette for Urban Mindz


Acclaimed African artist El Anatsui, originally born in Ghana and now based in Nigeria, has captivated global audiences in institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of African Art, the Smithsonian, and the Venice Biennial, to name a few. He placed a grand scale sculptural installation into the traditional African wing of the Metropolitan Museum titled “Between Earth and Heaven,” and the amazing piece captures all who approach it as it sits amidst the powerful time-honored forms in the hall.


Anatsui’s appearance in Art Basel's Statements Hall just a few years ago enthralled audiences who were mesmerized by his deeply emblematic work. Millions of bottle caps, copper wiring, reused aluminum commercial packaging material and other metal scraps are transformed into shimmering sheets hanging from ceilings, mounted on walls or carefully placed on floors.


This brilliant, 75-year-old artist refers to these art pieces as “cloths”, which are very pliable, movable and ever-changing according to how they are displayed. Anatsui’s work mirrors the West African time-honored profession of kente weavers who produce strip-woven textiles in radiant, resplendent colors. The youngest child of 32 children, Anatsui is the son and brother of professional kente weavers, and with his innovative mastery, he executes all his metallic pieces (representing the ‘cloth’) by hand! Clothing holds symbolic, historical and traditional emotive power, as well as memories for those who make the garments. The process of clothing was developed by Akan and Ewe weavers in Anatsui’s native Ghana. The artist says, “If you touch something, you leave a charge on it, and anybody else touching it connects with you, in a way.”


Although he has worked in other mediums, Anatsui’s beautiful gleaming metal works trick the eye, seeming to appear like traditional quilts, but are crafted 'magically' into gorgeous sculptural artwork. Upon approach and closer view, audiences can see that the sculptures are actually created with discarded metal fragments, including bottle caps that are marked with known alcohol and soda brands. When hung or placed, the silver and gold of the bottle caps create a twinkling of shining metal surfaces, looking at times like an extremely large piece of jewelry, or perhaps a metallic tapestry.


The stunning artwork is layered with deeper meaning in the reds, gold and blacks, still seen in the pervasively poverty-stricken areas of Africa where sadly alcohol represents the old colonial influences of trade and barter meant to influence and control the economy, people and trade. Alcohol was exchanged in the trans-Atlantic slave trade that was responsible for transporting kidnapped Africans to the Americas.


Imbued with deep African consciousness, Anatsui is providing the art world with a rich and powerful contemporary aesthetic and gives audiences a chance to reflect on historical and symbolic multi-layered cultural expressions. Anatsui says, “…When I create work… it is in my view a metaphor reflecting an alternative response to examine … possibilities and extend the boundaries in art. … My work can represent links in the evolving narrative of memory and identity.”


Rachel Vancelette


#ElAnatsui #MetropolitanMuseumofArt #AfricanArtist #NationalMuseumofAfricanArt

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