The Conversation

El Anatsui creates monumental works of art from recycled materials – which is why the world has fallen in love with him

This article is republished from Conversation Under Creative Commons Licence. Read the The original articlewhich was published on April 13, 2023.

the artist Anatsui He was born in Ghana and has spent the bulk of his career in Nigeria, but he is a global citizen. News The new major installation of his work coming to the prestigious Tate Modern gallery in London is just one in a series of major international works Exhibitions And Awards in the past decade.

The 79-year-old artist has become so famous that his trademark in art circles is a kind of art movement that goes by its own name, Elism. His work is influenced by – and in turn influences – the famous works of Nigeria Nsukka school Artists who draw inspiration from uli An art style derived from the wall paintings of the Igbo people. Nsukka is the city where I live and practice, and where I taught Anatsui’s work to students for years—as he once taught me.

His most famous works are Large sculptures Curtains, wall hangings and fixtures are made from flat, recycled aluminum bottle caps that are sewn into tapestries, making them dazzling and sparkling in a mix of shapes and colours. Its tactile quality gives it part of its sculptural relief. Colors and shapes also resonate Kente cloth The original motifs of the Anatsui ewe people.

his 2019 Retrospective exhibition In Germany, victor scaleestablished itself as a leading global voice. He was involved in coordinating it late Okoye EnwezorHe is best known for bringing African art into the Western mainstream.

In fact, Anatsui’s work has steadily evolved over time and can take many forms. Dividing it does not do it justice. He helped establish African art as a global force. But, as I also argue here, he is more than just an artist. Anatsui is also a humanitarian, educator, and philanthropist.

his life

Anatsui is from Anyaku, in the Volta region of Ghana. It is known as the Ewe, an ethnic group that extends as far as Togo. It is likely that his creative genes were inherited from his father, who was a craftsman. The last of 32 children born, he grew up with his priest uncle.

After completing his education in sculpture and art at Kwame Nkrumah University in Kumasi, Ghana, he worked as an art lecturer in Ghana for several years before moving to Nigeria.

One cannot discuss the city of Anatsui without mentioning the university town of Nsukka in Enugu State, southeastern Nigeria. University of NigeriaThe country’s first Aboriginal university is located here, and today Anatsui is Professor Emeritus at the college where I also teach.

He was 31 when he arrived in Nsukka 45 years ago and talks about the day enthusiastically, mentioning cultural figures such as the activist musician. Koti Villa As one of the reasons he was attracted to Nigeria and decided to stay. Anatsui is honored as an Ikedire of Ihe-Nsukka, the title of chieftain bestowed upon him by the local community indicating the influence he has had here.

I first encountered Anatsui when I was a college student in a basic drawing class. I realized in his class that once you can draw a bold line, you can do great artwork. He could find the only confident strike imbedded in a sea of ​​others.

Anatsui was a member of the aka group For artists who were popular in eastern Nigeria in the 80’s and 90’s. But he was always looking to conquer the global art scene. He was never involved in attaching artists to a specific continent.

After years as a lecturer and artist, he built homes for himself in Nsukka and Tema, Ghana. It was only in 2018 that he felt he could buy himself a new car – in Nigeria most civil servants can only afford used cars. big studio The construction also indicates years of continuous hard work.

Lesser known facts about Anatsui are that he follows a vegan diet, is an accomplished chess player, sports enthusiast, and plays squash. He is also well known in Nigeria as a philanthropist and educator who is more than just an artist of global stature. One example of his philanthropic work is how he provided young artists, from 2017 through 2021, with an all expenses paid trip to Senegal for an exhibition Duck Art Biennale.


Anatsui had been creating 3D works long before he produced his famous bottle caps. His first works were made from wooden trays found in the markets of Aniako. In Nsukka in the 1970s he made ceramic pieces from manganese clay. In the 1980s, he worked with concrete and terrazzo to produce sculptural works, some of which still exist on the Nsukka campus. His solid woodwork became popular and his influence expanded.

This creative concern to find materials from his environment led him to collect aluminum bottle caps that sat in bags for several months before becoming art materials. Bottle caps fit a new art form that differs from painting and sculpture.

Today Anatsui works in various media. Recently he has experimented with Prints, Metaverse, and augmented reality But it still uses tropical hardwood work combined with bottle cap pieces.

In a time of climate crisis, Anatsui’s work has become increasingly important by sustainably sourcing materials and reusing found objects that are often discarded as waste.

No doubt his installation at Tate in October will reflect the larger range of his work: fluid, fluid, polymorphic, supple, mesmerizingly colourful… shimmer, volume and material that speak of freedom and mobility, decolonization and environmental responsibility.

his influence

Elism’s direction focuses on using locally available materials that are frugal and simple. However, work is also an expression of humanistic concepts – emanating from human activities in relation to work and its environment.

While the scale of his bottle cap works reflects the scale of global consumption, it also presents an aesthetic beauty rooted in ancient cultural forms. In his extraordinary career, Anatsui helped bring African art to the world stage.

written by Amochi Naboyesart lecturer and researcher, University of Nigeria.

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