El Anatsui, Untitled

The artist transforms metal from alcohol bottles into textiles that represent libations for ancestors.

El Anatsui, Untitled, 2009, repurposed printed aluminum, copper, 256.5 × 284.5 × 27.9 cm as installed (Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C.)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Museum of African Art, part of the Smithsonian, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. We’re looking at a spectacular wall hanging by a very well-known contemporary African artist from Ghana.

Dr. Peri Klemm: [0:18] This work is by El Anatsui, who, while born in Ghana and raised there, spent most of his time as an artist in Nsukka, Nigeria. We’re looking at a recent work, which is at first glance a textile.

Dr. Zucker: [0:31] Textile is important in Ghana and has a long history. We’re probably most familiar with kente cloth.

Dr. Klemm: [0:37] The predominant color in kente is gold, which was associated with royalty and the Asante control of the gold trade. El Anatsui is using gold in this work to give it that sense of royal reverence and authority.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] What we’re looking at are small pieces of metal that are reclaimed, most often from liquor bottles, that have been pounded and then wired together, which returns us to traditional West African culture, the importance of alcohol and of a libation.

Dr. Klemm: [1:09] In many traditional societies in West Africa, there is a strong belief in the importance of venerating and honoring ancestors, especially when one eats, and so before taking that first bite or that first drink, you pour libations. You pour a bit of palm wine or some other kind of alcohol to the ancestors, just by dribbling a bit onto the ground. We have a reference here to that tradition.

Dr. Zucker: [1:34] This was refuse. What the artist has done is to collect these items and to transform them now into something that has powerful meaning and is stunningly beautiful.

Dr. Klemm: [1:45] This sculpture, this textile, was made up of pieces, that is, smaller square sheets of this material that would have been created by El Anatsui and today more so by men he employs in his workshop, who create these squares and then lay them out.

[2:00] El Anatsui will often climb up on a ladder or look from above to figure out how to arrange them and put them together. He may travel with this piece and put it up, or it might just be shipped and it’s really up to the curator how it’s going to be hung. In each new location, it takes on a different form.

[2:17] Notice it’s not flat. It really is intended to be sculptural and come out into our space.

Dr. Zucker: [2:22] I’m really interested in the idea that this is something that was done not only by the artist, but also by his workshop. In the West, we often think of that as detracting from the value of the object because the artist is not solely responsible for the work.

[2:35] In African culture, traditional cloth was often a more communal activity.

Dr. Klemm: [2:41] Absolutely. El Anatsui, while we want that name to be recognized with this piece of modern art, really acknowledges that there are other people that come together to make this possible.

[2:51] One thing that he also mentions is that these objects have had a life before. In fact, they’ve been touched and handled and manipulated by someone. That hearkens back to the belief system, you can find this among the Asante for example, this idea of “sunsum,” or an aura or an energy that gets transferred into objects that people handle most often. So it has an energy and electricity, sort of vitality, of this history.

Dr. Zucker: [3:17] Those words, “energy,” “vitality,” are so appropriate, just visually, to the surface. Look at the way that the light plays over it. You called it sculptural. It is not a flat surface. It intentionally bulges. There are valleys and hills and our eye rides over this really sensuous surface.

Dr. Klemm: [3:35] We have to remember that this is recyclia. This is a piece that’s completely recycled from materials that would have otherwise ended up in large trash heaps, just outside of almost any major city in Africa.

[3:49] El Anatsui is using his traditional visual vocabulary, his heritage, to make sense of this very complicated idea of consumerism and capitalism that is such a part of people’s lives in Africa today.

[4:04] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Steven Zucker, "El Anatsui, Untitled," in Smarthistory, September 7, 2018, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/el-anatsui-untitled-2/.