From far away, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s large-scale artworks take on the appearance of textiles and tapestries with patterns resembling those a master weaver might create. But upon closer inspection, the poignant pieces are actually constructed with simple bottle tops connected by copper wire. Flattened then stitched, their unique assembly allows the works to move, flow, and take almost any shape. They speak volumes about El Anatsui’s education and home.
El Anatsui, who taught sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, has had an interest in graphic forms, drawing, and abstract art since he was a child; he attended art school and began working with wood, ceramics, and indigenous West African materials.
He believes art is something that is environment-based, so when he found a bag of discarded bottle tops in the bushes in 1998, he decided to keep them in his studio. Reflection upon African history allowed an idea to reveal itself.
Historically (and sustainably) significant, the bottle tops were rooted in the trade route between Europe and Africa where alcohol was one of the trade commodities. The color of the tops, and the patterns El Anatsui creates, take on the resemblance of kente cloth, a traditional West African silk and cotton fabric.
And though he is essentially sewing with garbage to make these amazing artworks, El Anatsui doesn’t see what he does as recycling, but rather, transforming. We see how it is possible to create beautiful designs with very little.
He transforms architecture and space through his contemporary installations. The enormous sheets of “fabric” cover building facades, drape landscape and shrubs, and create seductive, enveloping wall-hangings.
El Anatsui acknowledges the craft and skill that go into the repetitive handwork of making the bottle top sheets, stating that, “The process of stitching, especially the repetitive aspect, slows down action and I believe makes thinking deeper. It’s like the effect of a good mantra on the mind.”
Draped and folded, full of intricate detail, his art is mesmerizing and larger-than-life.
It is as sustainable as it is culturally and historically significant – with endless possibilities and patterns.
*Photographs of Suan Mullin Vogel’s El Anatsui: Art and Life