El Anatsui

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Man's Cloth by El Anatsui (1998 – 2001), on display at the British Museum.

El Anatsui [ah-nah-ch-wee] (born 1944) is a Ghanaian sculptor active for much of his career in Nigeria. The youngest of 32 children,[context?] El Anatsui lost his mother and was raised by his uncle. He looked for "something that had more relationship to me, as someone growing up in an African country".[1] El Anatsui wanted to "draw connections between consumption, waste, and the environment".[2] As he would say, "Art grows out of each particular situation, and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up".[3] He has drawn particular international attention for his "bottle-top installations". These installations consist of thousands of aluminum pieces sourced from alcohol recycling stations and sewn together with copper wire, which are then transformed into metallic cloth-like wall sculptures. Such materials, while seemingly stiff and sturdy, are actually free and flexible, which often helps with manipulation when installing his sculptures.[4]

Early life and education

El Anatsui was born in Anyako, in the Volta Region of Ghana, and trained at the College of Art, University of Science and Technology, in Kumasi, in central Ghana.[5] His work with sculpture and wood carving started as a hobby to keep alive the traditions he grew up with. He began teaching at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1975, and has become affiliated with the Nsukka group.[6] Critic John McDonald has commented: "It has taken many years to find artists who can occupy a prominent place on the global circuit while choosing to reside outside the metropolitan centres. William Kentridge has made his reputation from Johannesburg, and El Anatsui has conquered the planet while living and working in the Nigerian university town of Nsukka." [7] During one interview with the artist, Anatsui revealed that his first experience with art was through drawing letters on a chalkboard.[8]

Artistic practice

Anatsui's preferred media are clay, wood and found objects to create sculptures based on traditional Ghanaian beliefs and other subjects. He has cut wood with chainsaws and blackened it with acetylene torches. After Anatsui's move from Winneba to Nsukka to pursue a career in education at the University of Nigeria, wood became less accessible to him. This drove him to pursue clay as a medium. Anastui's "Broken Pots: Sculpture by El Anatsui" was a series of vessels formed by shards of existing and created pottery. This series was Anatsui's first experiment with using many parts to create a whole, often providing new context or meaning to the pieces he was using. More recently, he has turned to installation art. Some of his works resemble woven cloths such as kente cloth but were not intended as textiles, but as sculptures.[9] These works are made from found objects, usually metal bottle caps which are tied together with wire to create vast sculptures that resemble tapestries. Anatsui incorporates "Adinsubli" for his works, an acronym made up of uli, nsibidi, and Adinkra symbols, alongside Ghanaian motifs.[9]

Man's Cloth, London exhibition

With his metal hangings continuing to spread over the world, Western art critics began to connect Anatsui's work with potential art historical references in order for them, foreigners, to create familiarity. For example, one mentions that his bottle tops could be compared to "Duchamp's bicycle wheel" and "recall disparate Modernist sweet spots without quite settling into any familiar category." [10]


In 1990, Anatsui had his first important group show at the Studio Museum In Harlem, New York. He also was one out of three artists singled out in the 1990 exhibition "Contemporary African Artists: Chaning traditions which was extended for five years".[10]

El Anatsui has since exhibited his work around the world, including at the Brooklyn Museum (2013),[11] the Clark Art Institute (2011),[12] Rice University Art Gallery, Houston (2010),[13] Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2008–09);[14] National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. (2008);[15] Fowler Museum at UCLA (2007);[16] Venice Biennale (2007);[17] Hayward Gallery (2005);[18] Liverpool Biennial (2002);[17] the National Museum of African Art (2001);[17] the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (2001);[17] the 8th Osaka Sculpture Triennale (1995);[17] the 5th Gwangju Biennale (2004); and the Venice Biennale (1990).[17]

A 2010 retrospective of his work, entitled When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, was organized by the Museum for African Art and opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It subsequently toured venues in the United States for three years, concluding at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

In 1995, Anatsui held his first solo exhibition outside of Africa in London, which helped open the eyes of non-Western artists. He expressed a variety of themes and demonstrated how African art can be shown in a multitude of ways that are not seen as "typical" African.[10] His work utilized conceptual modes that were used by European and American artists but hardly in African countries.[10]

Palazzo Fortuny Artempo exhibition

Anatsui showed his work at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 2005. This was his first time "appear[ing] as part of the permanent collection in a major art museum."[19] His New York exhibition at the Skoto Gallery, "Danudo," created a bridge between his work and the international art world.[19] At this gallery, Skoto Aghahowa presented Anatsui's wood wall panels alongside Sol LeWitt's drawings. "Danudo" was the first displaying of his metal sheets in an American city.[19] This exhibition popularized his bottle-cap works as he gained more recognition in the press.[19]

El Anatsui was invited to the Venice Biennale in 2006 and again in 2007 where two hanging metal tapestries were commissioned from Anatsui. Here he introduced his work into the contemporary art world.[9][10] During the 2007 edition, he exhibited his works at the Palazzo Fortuny which consisted of newly-built walls for him to display three metal hangings entitled Dusasa.[19] Each artwork demonstrated different textures and colors ranging from golds, reds, and blacks. The way the bottle tops draped throughout the hangings created a sense of gentleness that made it stand apart from the other works in the gallery.[19] Art curator of the Biennale, Robert Storr, mentions that the artist's series "reaches back into a whole series of things in the postwar period-it has a kind of exaltation I have not seen before." [19]

His career did not spur suddenly, starting in his home village of Nsukka and branched off to other places such as Enugu and Lagos, and eventually internationally.[10] During this Venetian showing, Anatsui wanted to create a new experience for his viewers conceptually. He believes that "human life is not something which is cut and dried. It is something that is constantly in a state of change."[10] At this point, he began to refer his metalworks as hangings instead of "cloths" and uses his inspiration and materials from Africa to speak about humanity.[10]

Drying Towels and Paint, 2013

A major exhibition of recent works, entitled Gravity & Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, had its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013. Organized by the Akron Art Museum (exhibition: 2012), the exhibition later traveled to the Des Moines Art Center (2013–14) and the Bass Museum of Art in Miami (2014).[20]

Other activities

El Anatsui was selected to act as a member on the International Society for Education through Art (InSEA ) world council in 1992 for his work in education.[10] El Anatsui became the founder member and fellow of the Forum for African Arts in the year 2000. That year he also became a member of the International Selection Committee for the Dakar Biennale in Senegal.[10] In 2001 he was a fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy.[10][9]



El Anatsui won an honorable mention at the First Ghana National Art Competition during his time as an undergraduate student in 1968. The following year he was awarded with the Best Student of the Year and his College of Art in Kumasi, Ghana.[10] In 1983 he artist won a commission for two public large scale sculptures on the Nsukka campus, made of terrazzo surfaced cement.[10] He was selected to be one of ten artists invited to the Zweites Symposium Nordesekkuste residency in Cuxhaven, West Germany in 1984.[10]

In 1990, El Anatsui was invited to the 44th annual Venice Biennale show "5 Contemporary African Artists" where he received an honorable mention.[10] This year he was selected for inclusion into the American documentary Nigerian Art-Kindred Spirits.

In 2015 the Venice Biennale awarded El Anatsui the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.[21][22]

In 2017 El Anatsui was awarded the Praemium Imperiale, the first Ghanaian to win the international art prize.[23][24][25]

Other awards include:

Honorary degrees

See also


  1. ^ "Rain Has No Father? | Denver Art Museum". denverartmuseum.org. Retrieved 2019-04-25.
  2. ^ "El Anatsui in Conversation | Stanford Live". live.stanford.edu. Retrieved 2019-04-25.
  3. ^ Anatsui, El; Houghton, Gerard; Ogbechie, Okwunodu Sylvester (2003). Gawu.
  4. ^ Sollins, Marybeth. "El Anatsui". Art 21.
  5. ^ http://el-anatsui.com/biography/curriculum-vitae/
  6. ^ "El Anatsui" biography at the National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.". Retrieved 24 January 2010.
  7. ^ McDonald, John, "El Anatsui: out of Africa and taking the art world by storm", The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 February 2016.
  8. ^ Oguibe, Olu (Winter 1998). "El Anatsui: Beyond Death and Nothingness". African Arts. 31 (1): 48–55+96. doi:10.2307/3337623. JSTOR 3337623.
  9. ^ a b c d e Binder, Lisa M. (2010). El Anatsui when I last wrote to you about Africa. Museum for African Art. ISBN 9780945802563. OCLC 800807190.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Vogel, Susan (2012). El Anatsui: Art and Life. New York: Prestel. pp. 11, 41–45, 85–89, 164. ISBN 978-3-7913-4650-2.
  11. ^ "Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui". Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  12. ^ El Anatsui exhibition (2011). Clark Art Institute website, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  13. ^ "El Anatsui: Gli (Wall)". (2010). Rice University Art Gallery, Houston, Texas. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  14. ^ Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (2008). "Rich Legacy of African Textiles on View in Metropolitan Museum Exhibition". Retrieved 29 January 2010.
  15. ^ "El Anatsui at NMAA", Artnet, 17 January 2008. Retrieved 29 January 2010.
  16. ^ "El Anatsui: Gawu". Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA. (2007). Retrieved 1 July 2014.
  17. ^ a b c d e f Preece, R. J. (2006). "El Anatsui interview: Out of West Africa". Sculpture/artdesigncafe. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  18. ^ "AFRICA REMIX: Contemporary Art of a Continent". Hayward Gallery, London. Retrieved 29 January 2010.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g Vogel, Susan (2012). El Anatsui: Art and Life. New York: Prestel. pp. 78–85. ISBN 978-3-7913-4650-2.
  20. ^ "Gravity & Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui". Exhibition information. Akron Art Museum. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  21. ^ Russeth, Andrew (23 April 2015). "2015 Venice Biennale News. Venice Biennale Awards Golden Lions to El Anatsui, Susanne Ghez, Names Jury". author. Retrieved 23 April 2015.
  22. ^ Toledo, Manuel, "Venice Biennale honours Africa's 'bottle-top artist' El Anatsui", BBC News, 9 May 2015.
  23. ^ "2017 Sculpture El Anatsui", Praemium Imperiale.
  24. ^ Chow, Andrew R., "Shirin Neshat and Mikhail Baryshnikov Among Praemium Imperiale Winners", The New York Times, 12 September 2017.
  25. ^ "Baryshnikov, Youssou N'Dour among top art prize winners", Mail Online, 12 September 2017.
  26. ^ Gibson, Katie, "Nine to receive honorary degrees", Harvard Gazette, 26 May 2016.
  27. ^ Gyamfi Asiedu, Kwasi, "Legendary Ghanaian artist receives honorary degree from Harvard", Pulse.com.gh, 30 May 2016.
  28. ^ "El Anatsui to receive honorary doctorate from Harvard", ArtPremium, 3 June 2016.

Further reading

  • (in French) "EL Anatsui, Tsiatsia", Le Delarge, read online.
  • "El Anatsui (born 1944), Sculptor", Benezit Dictionary of Artists, read online, ISBN 9780199899913.
  • Lisa M. Binder, "Anatsui, El (born 1944), sculptor", Grove Art Online, read online, ISBN 9781884446054.
  • Ian Chilvers and John Glaves-Smith, "Anatsui, El (1944–)", A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art, read online, ISBN 9780191726750.
  • Anne Hart Jennifer, "El Anatsui (1944)", Dictionary of African Biography, read online, ISBN 9780199857258.
  • Simon Ottenberg, New Traditions from Nigeria: Seven Artists of the Nsukka group, Smithsonian Institution Press 1997, ISBN 9781560988007
  • Vogel, Susan Mullin (2012). El Anatsui. Prestal.
  • Sollins, Marybeth (2012). art:21 vol.6. Art21, Inc. p. 31. ISBN 978-0-615-54566-0.
  • Oguibe, Olu. "El Anatsui: Beyond Death and Nothingness", African Arts, Vol.31, No.1 (1988), pp.48-55+96, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3337623
  • Gayer, J. (2008). El Anatsui : Gawu. Espace, (86), 39–40. id.erudit.org/iderudit/9058ac

External links

  • El-Anatsui.com
  • "El Anatsui" at Praemium Imperiale.
  • QuickTime Virtual Reality Image of "Akua's Surviving Children"[permanent dead link] at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, by Jonathan Greet
  • Doug Britt, "El Anatsui lets chance, collaboration into his work", Houston Chronicle, 25 January 2010.
  • Inception Gallery Contemporary Art
  • El Anatsui piece at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • "El Anatsui", Art21. (n.d.). Retrieved December 8, 2016.
  • 'The Installation of El Anatsui's "Dusasa l" (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). Retrieved 17 January 2017.
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