Nigeria based sculptor El Anatsui’s magisterial Spectacular art

El Anatsui is what I would describe as a spirit artist of the most remarkable kind. He is at one with the materials he employs to make his work, and is guided by the materials in the creation of his magisterial, magnificent drapelike hang sculptures. It is his understanding and belief and acceptance in the power of matter – of raw materials of the earth that have in his instance been throw away as detritus as they are discarded Nigerian alcohol bottle caps. Everyone who sees his work is enthralled: Each visitor to his work is made to realize that the God spirit of African art making is far from dead; and there is no need to wish for it to be true in another, antique or even archaic form, such as the mythic African sculptures that are the font and foundation of European Modernism. El Anatsui shows that the native power and narrative spirit of African art has survived ever horror and evil brought against it and its people. His works do not speak from anger or hate or despair, but fulfill and enrich each person who is witness to it with a full pouring into the vessel of our heart the eternal beauty that has been beaten out of us by life. El Anatsui’s art proves that the ego bound mania of so many forms of art production are sterile, bland, lifeless and weak, and do not carry within it all the desire and capacity to incite monumental exchanges of astonishing delight as we are wrapped into these enormous wonders that are draped from walls in museums from his Nigeria studio. His art allows each of us to feel the especial experience of being empowered by the royalty of art. It lifts our spirits, we rise above the everyday as his simple found, labored and orchestrated materials carry us on a magic carpet ride of human wonder.
Vincent Johnson
Los Angeles
“El Anatsui is arguably the most significant African artist of his generation and one of the
few sculptors who can genuinely be credited for inventing a completely new and unique visual
idiom with his woven metal sculptures.”
“Anatsui’s employment of fragmentation as a compositional technique serves as a mordant
reminder that even the most abstract works can have the capacity to humanize the most lowly
of objects and infuse them with iconic power.” Okwui Enwezor/Parkett
El Anatsui, Sacred Moon, 2007; aluminum and copper wire, 103 x 141 in. Photograph courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery.

Tapestries of Tin: An El Anatsui Show Opens at the Brooklyn Museum

by Leslie Camhi

Vogue Daily — El Anatsui
Vogue Daily — El Anatsui
Vogue Daily —
Vogue Daily —

El Anatsui, Gravity and Grace, 2010

Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

1 of 4

The Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui was 63 when the international art world finally woke up to his work, at the 2007 Venice Bienniale. One of his contributions was impossible to miss—a giant shimmering tapestry in colors of pale pewter and lustrous gold, flecked with red and blue, and draped over the graceful Gothic facade of a palazzo that was once home to textile designer Mariano Fortuny (and is now a museum). Made from thousands of discarded liquor bottle tops, crushed or twisted and joined together with copper wire in Anatsui’s studio in Nigeria, it was both entrancingly beautiful and historically complex, transforming the refuse of an impoverished continent into something uniquely luxurious. It seemed at once ancient and worn, yet also opulent and radically new—a curtain opening on a dialogue about the African roots of First World wealth.

“Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui,” a show organized by the Akron Museum of Art and opening on Friday, February 8 at the Brooklyn Museum, focuses on the architecturally scaled pieces—occupying an intermediate zone between sculpture, painting, and installation—that Anatsui has created in the past few years, as his reputation, built up over decades at the forefront of art activity in Africa, has skyrocketed in the West. (Visitors to Manhattan’s High Line can also see his Broken Bridge II—nearly a city block in length, and fashioned from repurposed metal plates and mirrors, it currently hangs over the side of a building in Chelsea between West 21st and West 22nd Streets.)

“What has astonished me about his work is his ability to keep inventing something new, especially given a medium that people thought he would exhaust very quickly,” says Susan M. Vogel, a pioneering scholar of African art and the author of El Anatsui: Art and Life (Prestel USA). “He now says that working with bottle tops is like working with oil and canvas,” she continues, “that it can go on forever.” Vogel’s book offers a rare look into the life and career of this singular artist, from his birth in a small town of the Gold Coast, now Ghana (the youngest of some 32 siblings), through his unlikely embrace of art as a vocation, to the intellectual community surrounding him in at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he created and taught art for 37 years. In 1998, while out walking in Nsukka, he stumbled upon a trash bag filled with metal bottle tops and wrappers, and began envisioning the possibilities. Themes of exile and loss are woven through his work, but also art’s alchemical powers of transformation. “His work is about oppression and poverty, and about triumphing over it,” Vogel says. “It’s about endurance in the face of adversity, and in the face of fate that can change at any moment.”

“Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” is will remain on view through August 4 at the Brooklyn Museum;


photograph courtesy October Gallery
El Anatsuiwas born in 1944 in Anyako, in southeastern Ghana, and trained at the College of Art, University of Science and Technology, in Kumasi, Ghana. He has been teaching at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, since 1975.The work he created in Ghana is best known for the incisions made with hot irons on round or spherical market trays of Ghanaian wood. At Nsukka, and later when he briefly resided in Wales, El Anatsui worked in clay, often combined with manganese, to create unusual objects based on traditional Ghanaian beliefs and other subjects.He then turned to making wall panels formed from strips of wood placed side by side. Designs were cut into the surface with gouges and a chain saw, blackened with the flame of an acetylene torch. Some wood surfaces and some designs were painted.More recently he has fabricated freestanding wood pieces and entire installations. Anatsui freely utilizes local craft products, such as Ghanaian trays and Igbo palm mortars, as well as the natural materials of wood and clay.The aesthetic qualities of his wall-hung wood panels are heightened by the inclusion of several differently colored tropical woods.A number of themes recur in Anatsui’s art. One is the destruction and reconstitution of materials as metaphors for life, experience, and changes in Africa under colonialism and since independence. A second theme is associated with textiles and traditional African crafts. After he had created several wall panels from strips of wood, Anatsui realized that they resembled West African strip-woven cloth. His concern over Western scholars’ misinterpretation of African history and the distortions it has caused forms a third theme. Already utilizing uli, nsibidi, and Ghanaian motifs, Anatsui continues to search for African design systems, written languages, and other indigenous forms of communication to incise in the hewn surfaces of his imposing wooden sculptures.
El Anatsui 2008, “Rain Has No Father?” Found bottle tops with copper wire
“One of the artists whose work influenced me early on was Akwete Kofi, who made massive ponderous wood forms. As I became exposed to the rest of the world, several other artists’ works have been references and inspirations: Anish Kapoor’s engagement with the void or darkness; Antony Gormley’s work— especially the energy generated by many hands touching clay to realize his “Field” series; and Endo Toshikatsu’s use of fire on massive wood sections in his earlier works. While influences continue to grow and expand, I am still interested in what goes on around me.” El Anatsui interview, Our West, 2006
 “Most of Anatsui’s sculptures are made out of materials once designated for another purpose. His early works were built out of broken pottery or old wooden logs, which he cut up using a chainsaw. In the past ten years, Anatsui has focused on large tapestry-like metal sculptures made up out of thousands of colourful liquor caps. Using found objects he reworks and rearranges materials and transforms them into something new without them losing their own history. His work could be described as a collage of discarded memories. Anatsui recombines them into his own, never fixed syntax, which the viewer is invited to adapt freely, bringing in his own history. The meaning of Anatsui’s work is fluid, just like textile.

Although individually humble, the materials he uses become collectively monumental, just like our individual actions as consumers and communicators allow us to participate in a global community.”

Vlaeykensgang-Oude Koornmarkt 16, BE-2000 Antwerp / / +32 (0) 477 88 80 60
10 May – 30 June 2012
“Sankofa. An important Akan word in African history, meaning “looking back and picking up”. It was a syndrome and attitude in many African countries during the 1960s, after their independence. All of the new nations were faced with the difficult problem of finding their unique cultural identity. During those years, the people found that history was the most reliable source of identity. It became an urgent task for the nation state to look back at the history carved out by its ancestors and take things from it to hold onto while moving toward the future. This is precisely the concept expressed by the Akan word sankofa.
Being a child of the hopeful 1960’s, El Anatsui (°1944, Ghana) grew up in a period typified by the profound search for social and personal identity. This search has become a central theme through his art. He investigates the erosion of tradition as well as its survival and transmission into the future.
Anatsui uses the word sankofa when he speaks of adinkra, a 17th century graphical system that is used to form patterns on African textile, and which is a great inspiration to the artist. Each symbol has a particular meaning. They often refer to abstract concepts of faith or courage or are a reference to proverbs and aphorisms. In earlier times, these symbols were stamped on cotton cloth and distributed in the form of textiles. These pieces of cloth were mainly worn during funeral ceremonies, but now, with the symbols also applied to pottery, walls of houses, backs of chairs, T-shirts and so forth, they have become a common element of everyday life.
For Anatsui, adinkra symbols have become a means for concretely expressing the concept of sankofa, a means of communication between the past, the present and the future, a means of finding identity. El Anatsui communicates with memories and tradition to define his place as an individual in the here and now.
The meaning of sankofa also applies to Anatsui’s choice of material. He mainly uses discarded materials. In his own words, he states: “Art grows out of each particular situation and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up…”

Vlaeykensgang-Oude Koornmarkt 16, BE-2000 Antwerp / /

El Anatsui transcended geography to find his niche in art (excerpted)

Published: Tuesday, June 26, 2012, 1:40 PM     Updated: Wednesday, June 27, 2012, 11:52 AM
Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer By Steven Litt,  The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Lynn Ischay, The Plain Dealer
El Anatsui won global acclaim after displaying wall hangings made of discarded bottle caps at the Venice Biennale that were similar to “Earth’s Skin,” shown behind him, which is now on view at the Akron Art Museum.

Akron Art Museum What: The exhibition “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anat sui.”

El Anatsui, one of the hottest contemporary artists in the world, caused a quiet stir at the Akron Art Museum two weeks ago when he showed up to see the American debut installation of his new traveling exhibition, “Gravity and Grace.”

Art handlers downed their hammers and drills, and stepped off ladders, when the artist — jet-lagged after 24 hours in transit and three connecting flights from Accra, Ghana, to Cleveland — made his way through the galleries alongside chief curator Ellen Rudolph.

Dressed in a loose-fitting denim jacket that accentuated his close-cropped white hair, Anatsui slowly inspected installations that covered entire walls with dazzling and colorful blankets of metal fashioned out of zillions of flattened aluminum liquor-bottle screw caps held together with short bits of copper wire.

You could almost hear the museum staffers exhale. Anatsui sends his metal blankets folded and packed in crates with no instructions on how they should be hung, because he likes to challenge museums to interpret them in different ways.”

He said he’s enjoying the attention, and the professional possibilities that have opened up as a result, but “it’s not like all of a sudden I appeared on the scene. It’s been a gradual process for me.”

Born in 1944 in the town of Anyako, Ghana, then the British colony of the Gold Coast, Anatsui discovered early on that his interest in art was a way to set himself apart as the youngest of 32 children in his father’s family.

At the College of Art at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, Anatsui studied mainly modern Western art, but later struggled to make a new kind of work rooted in African traditions without imitating traditional tribal forms.

After joining the faculty of art at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Anatsui created works in clay and wood that garnered invitations to conferences and exhibitions overseas, starting in Toronto in 1978.

A dozen years later, Anatsui participated in his first Venice Biennale, although, he said pointedly, “I was representing Africa. The second time [at the Biennale], I wasn’t representing anything. I was just an artist. Geography wasn’t a factor any longer.”

The sudden accolades that greeted Anatsui’s bottle-cap creations in Venice in 2007 can be explained by their sheer visual appeal, and by the magic of seeing discarded waste turned into profoundly beautiful objects.

But there’s more: Western critics have compared Anatsui’s recent works to mosaics, to the glittering decorative patterns in the early-20th-century Viennese portraits of Gustav Klimt, to the shiny metal skins of buildings by architect Frank Gehry or the “found object” creations of Marcel Duchamp, an artistic-recycler par excellence.

Anatsui scoffs at some of these comparisons.

“I don’t see Klimt in my work,” he said. “People come to my work from their previous experiences. If they know Klimt, this is close to Klimt for them.”

“Coming from my part of the world, there is a stereotype that the Western world had about African art as being something about masks and ritual, and that these are people who don’t do art for its own sake,” he said.

“To have that kind of stereotype removed, and your work looked at as something worthy of contemplation and something universal, should mean a lot to anybody from my part of the world.”

He didn’t immediately realize the possibilities of bottle caps when he found a bag full of them discarded by the road near his studio in 1999. He took them inside, threw them in a corner and did nothing with them for what he calls “a long time.”

Gradually, he began to understand that by flattening and joining them with copper wire, he could create endlessly extendable forms that were “variable, flexible and free,” qualities he has always sought.

“It didn’t come to me all at once,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a very brief run, but when I continued working on them, I saw so many potentialities. It just kept moving and moving.”

Today, Anatsui employs 35 to 40 assistants in a 40-by-100-foot warehouse he uses as a studio. “When I initially moved in, I thought it was huge, but now it’s so small,” he said.

As his creations evolve, Anatsui climbs a ladder to look down on them, spread flat on the concrete floor.

His assistants are generally high school graduates working for a time before going off to college to study computer science, economics or engineering. He said the actual work of using metal punches to make holes in the caps, and then threading them together with copper wire, “is physically hard. It is exacting. To sit down for the whole day and toil at joining these . . . the very fact of repetition would make it really difficult for an individual to do it alone.”

If anything, Anatsui will be working harder and harder in the years to come. Demand for his work is high, and prices are rising. The Collector Tribune reported in May that an Anatsui metal piece sold at auction in London for a record price of $850,000 — just two weeks after a comparable work sold at auction in New York for $722,000.For Anatsui, the demand for his work means more pressure, plus the opportunity to work on an ever larger scale and to collaborate with architects. Anatsui said he has invitations to work with architects on projects in Venice and Berlin, but he declined to give specifics.

Musing aloud, as if to issue an invitation through the media, Anatsui said his dream would be to collaborate on a project with Tadao Ando of Japan, an architect he admires for his poetic minimalism.

“El Anatsui, an artist and professor who lives in Nigeria, has been creating glittering, fluid sculptures that recall his native Ghana’s traditional kente cloths since the late 1990s. “…Cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners,” he once said, and fittingly, his large-scale works create a monumental impact upon viewing.  They can be found hanging in some of the world’s most famous museums, such as the British Museum; Centre Pompidou; the Met; and the MFA, Boston.

1. Kente cloths were so prestigious that only royalty and important officials of the Asante kingdom were allowed to wear them. Anatsui’s sculptures invoke the rich tradition of kente by mimicking the narrow strip patterns of the actual textiles, but also bring to mind global consumerism and the economics of the slave trade through the flattened aluminum caps of liquor bottles from which they are fashioned.

2. Anatsui employs over a dozen assistants to flatten the bottle caps into strips, which they then cut and shape into blocks. He arranges the blocks in a formation to his liking and the pieces are stitched together using copper wire.  Most of his assistants aren’t actually aspiring artists, but rather are Nigerian students waiting to take their university entrance exams.

3. Traditional kente cloths are woven on unique looms that allow weavers to juxtapose vertical stripes (the warp-face pattern) with intricate geometric designs (the weft-face pattern) in a painstaking process requiring significant training and skill. In fact, the origins of kente are traced in Akan mythology to the spider Ananse, a trickster renowned for exceptional cleverness.”

 El Anatsui, a Sculptor Who Starts From Scrap (excerpted)

By Barbara Pollack
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 23, 2008

“A work of art reflects its origins but at the same time it should be able to reach out to people,” says Anatsui, in Washington for the installation of his show. The artist, 64, was born in Ghana before its independence in 1957, but since 1975 he has lived in Nsukka, Nigeria, where he is a professor of sculpture.

His art reflects various traditions of those two countries, such as West African kente cloth and reliquary carvings, yet his work incorporates the massive scale that is a hallmark of contemporary installation art. F

“El Anatsui: Gawu” – The title of the exhibition combines two words — “ga,” meaning metal, and “wu,” meaning cloak — from Anatsui’s native Ewe language. It aptly describes his iconic wall reliefs, which look like medieval chain mail or jeweled robes fit for a king.

Actually, these monumental wall hangings are sculptures, not tapestries, and many are made from thousands of strips of aluminum taken from the seals used on liquor bottles. With the help of 20 assistants, Anatsui flattens the seals and folds them into strips that are then woven together with copper wire. All of the colors come from the labels themselves, and on closer inspection the names of the brands are legible. The process is laborious and it takes almost two months to finish one work. The finished artworks are roughly 30 feet long and 20 feet high.

He began using the material quite by chance in 1999.

“The first bag of bottle caps I found thrown away in the bush,” Anatsui recalls. “I went back to the place and asked people where I could find more.” He discovered that the local distillery collected the seals from used liquor bottles before recycling and refilling the containers. Local merchants bought the discarded seals to smelt into metal to make huge cooking vessels for local funeral rituals. Anatsui became an unlikely competitor, purchasing huge bags of these aluminum castoffs as the basic material for his intricate constructions.

“When I work with this medium, I have in mind that I am touching or playing around with that time in history,” Anatsui says, referring to the time when sailing ships brought liquor to Africa and took slaves across the Atlantic. “Maybe the people who made the drinks chose their names for different reasons, but for me they ring of that episode.”

“I think one can discern different types of abstraction from place to place, from India, from America, from South America, or Africa,” he says. “If it is a successful abstraction, it should be easy to reference its source.”

El Anatsui: Gawu is at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW, through Sept. 2. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission is free.

Synopsis of Fold, Crumple Crush

Filmed over three years in Venice, Italy, Nsukka, Nigeria, and the US, this is a powerful portrait of Africa’s most widely acclaimed contemporary artist. Fold Crumple Crush gives an insider’s view of the artist’s practice, the ingenious steps and thousands of hours of labor that convert used bottle tops into huge, opulent wall hangings. Here Anatsui explains how his artworks have become a marriage of painting and sculpture, objects that speak of African history but also reach for the ethereal — and he talks about his aspirations for artworks he has yet to make.

Behind the charming, easy going artist we discover a man who remains mysterious even to his dearest friends. The film circles around Anatsui, drawing ever closer to a deep understanding of the man and his surprising bottle top hangings. We see the celebrated artist installing work on the great world stage of the Venice Biennale;  we follow him back to the small town of Nsukka as he goes about his daily life, then watch him inside the hive of his studio directing assistants as they stitch together bottle tops into a vast metal hanging. Finally, Anatsui admits us to the privacy of his home where he tells us about his formative years, and reveals a youthful discovery that clouded his life.”

53 minutes

fold crumple crush: the art of el anatsui

Visual Profile header logo

Between Earth and Heaven, by El Anatsui

Between Earth and Heaven, by El Anatsui

Closeup of Between Earth and Heaven by El Anatsui

Closeup of Between Earth and Heaven by El Anatsui


aluminium corks blanket
aluminium corks curtain
Sculpture (Detail) by El Anatsui / Jack Shainman Gallery / The Armory Show 2010 / 20100305.7D.03932 / SML
aluminium corks curtain_02
A000984 / el anatsui at the deYoung museum
Oeuvre d'El Anatsui sur la façade du musée Galliera
Between Earth and Heaven
Metal Cloth 557
What is this?
Lines that Link Humanity sculpture detail
Friendly nature
Holi Greetings
El Anatsui at the Met
El Anatsui, Between Earth and Heaven, 2006
trash to treasure
- Sonsbeek 2008 -
“Emerging as an artist during the vibrant West African post-independence art movements of the 1960s and 1970s, El Anatsui has gone on to receive international acclaim for his constantly evolving and highly experimental sculpture. Born in the Volta region of Ghana in 1944, he studied at the College of Art in what is now called the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumase from 1965 to 1969. After teaching in Ghana, he assumed a teaching post at the University of Nigeria-Nsukka (UNN) in Enugu Province in 1975. He currently holds the position of head of sculpture at UNN, and his influence upon young artists in Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa has been profound. Although Anatsui’s work attracted particular attention in the recent landmark exhibition Africa Remix–which was presented from 2004 to 2007 in Düsseldorf, London, Paris, Tokyo and Stockholm–his exhibition history spans three decades. In addition to frequent exhibitions in Nigeria and throughout Africa, his work has been shown widely in Europe, the United States and Japan as well as at the Venice, Havana and Johannesburg biennales. His sculpture is held in numerous public collections around the world, including the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. Anatsui continues to live and work in Nsukka, Nigeria, but maintains close connections with his native Ghana.”
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)

Cosmos. Oil on canvas  2012 by Vincent Johnson

Cosmos Red Yellow Green. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

Green God. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

This new painting series is part of my ongoing exploration of painting materials and techniques from the history of painting. The works combine knowledge of painting practices of both abstract and representation paintings. The works concern themselves purely with the visual power that paintings can do through the manipulation of paint. Some of the underpaintings are allowed to dry for months; some of those are built dark to light, others light to dark. None are made in a single setting. Most are worked and reworked using studio materials. Each new series takes a different approach to the painted surface from how the paint is applied, to varying the painting mediums. This suite concerns itself with the layering of paint by building up the surface and altering and reworking the wet paint with studio tools.

Two larger paintings will be completed and photographed on Sunday, July 15, 2012 and posted here.

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting: The Storm (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting, Snow White/White Snow (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson, Nine Grayscale Paintings, Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, (2001). Oil on canvas. Each panel is 20×24 inches.
photograph of silver paint on my hands in studio, Los Angeles, during the creation of Nine Grayscale paintings.
Vincent Johnson – in Los Angeles studio working on Nine Grayscale Paintings, 2011

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications. His photographic works were most recently shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. His most recent paintings were shown at the Beacon Arts Center in Los Angeles. He participated in The Bearden Project in 2011-12 at the Studio Museum in Harlem.  He is currently showing work in Photography 2013 at Another Year in LA gallery in West Hollywood.

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