El Anatsui is today recognised as one of the leading sculptors of our time. Best known for his 'cloths' made from whisky bottle caps, he has won international acclaim for a range of spectacular gallery and site-based installations. Most recently, he transformed one of Italy's Gothic landmarks, wrapping the façade of the Palazzo Fortuny with thousands of glimmering bottle caps during the 2007 Venice Biennale.
Throughout his long career, El Anatsui has explored the significance of the materials that surround us in daily life. A whisky bottle cap might therefore be used not only for its lustrous appearance, but also to remind us of the history of liquor as a product that Europeans once exchanged for slaves along the West African coast. Similarly, a piece of driftwood might not only form the visual basis of a sculpture, but also stand as an allegory for a soul rescued from a trans-Atlantic slaving ship.
Wastepaper Basket, 2003 (Courtesy October Gallery, London)
Much of El Anatsui's early work was made with tropical hardwood and a chainsaw, but in recent years he has used materials ranging from evaporated milk tin lids and cassava graters to obituary notice printing plates. Many of these materials cannot be reused or recycled, and so they build up and impact on the Nigerian landscape.
'Art grows out of each particular situation,' Anatsui said in 2004, '… and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up … I don't think that working with prescribed materials would be very interesting to me – industrially produced colours for painting. I believe that colour is inherent in everything … and that you're better off picking something which relates to your circumstances and your environment than going to buy a ready-made colour.'
Cloth installation at Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, 2007, as part of the exhibition ‘Artempo - Where Art Becomes Time’
(Courtesy October Gallery, London)
Born in 1944 in Anyako, Ghana, since 1975 Anatsui has been based in Nsukka, Nigeria. He holds a professorship in sculpture at the University of Nigeria.
Anatsui's work has been collected by major institutions such as the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Centre Pompidou. He is represented by October Gallery, London, whose website contains images of a range of his work.