Art news

African artist El Anatsui makes wall hangings out of recycled materials

A recurring theme in his work is colonialism and its impact in Africa.

Story by Bonnie Alter - Source:

Photo © Bonnie Alter

El Anatsui is everywhere this year. With a huge piece on the outside of the venerable Royal Academy in London, and a whole show in the Brooklyn Museum and the High Line in New York, it’s hard to miss him.


Photo © Bonnie Alter

He is a West African artist who uses recycled materials such as discarded bottled tops, roofing sheets, printing plates and other detritus which he turns into intricate, shimmering metallic hangings.

The piece in London, hanging on the front of the Royal Academy is called TSIA-TSIA–Searching for Connection. He created it specially for the gallery. It is made of bottle tops woven together with copper wire as well as printing plates and roofing sheets.

The flattened aluminum bottle-tops advertising cheap African liquor–Romatex, Castello, and First Lady Brandy– glitter like gold.


Photo © Bonnie Alter

A recurring theme in his work is colonialism and its impact in Africa. The Europeans first brought bottles of gin and whiskey to Africa to trade. Now these drinks are made locally in Nigeria. All the bottle caps have been collected from the streets, so they may look commonplace but in fact they are loaded with historical significance.

His main materials are “things that are easily overlooked, easily seen as rubbish”.

The 9 woven panels are made entirely of garbage. Some sections are made from used printing plates announcing births, deaths and weddings. Squares of vibrant colours come from discarded roofing material. The aluminum bottle caps shimmer in the sunlight.


Photo © Andrew McAllister, courtesy of the Akron Art Museum

The panels weigh surprisingly little: 110 pounds each.

The Brooklyn Museum is having a big show of 30 of his works. Called Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, theirs are indoors…


Photo © Andrew McAllister, courtesy of the Akron Art Museum

The artist was born in Ghana in 1944 but since 1975 has lived and taught in Nsukka, Nigeria where he is a professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria.

El Anatsui is involved in the hanging of each show, draping the works and arranging the pieces so that each time they are shown they look different and unique.


Photo © Andrew McAllister, courtesy of the Akron Art Museum

He wants to “subvert the stereotype of metal as a stiff, rigid medium and rather reveal it as a soft, pliable, almost sensuous material capable of attaining immense dimensions and being adapted to specific spaces.”

El Anatsui says about his work:

More than ten years after first developing this medium, I now realize that it is something endless. Like a painter who spends his entire career using just one medium, I feel I could spend the rest of my career using only bottle tops because there’s an open-ended sense of freedom in this medium. The amazing thing about working with these metallic “fabrics” is that the poverty of the materials used in no way precludes the telling of rich and wonderful stories.


Photo © Bonnie Alter

This detail of a piece at auction shows the liquor bottle caps and how they are linked together. As Anatsui notes, his metal cloths

encapsulate the essence of the alcoholic drinks which were brought to Africa by Europeans as trade items at the time of the earliest contact between the two peoples


Photo © Paul Trafford

Calling all New Yorkers: his work is also on view on the High Line this summer. Called Broken Bridge II, it’s his largest work to date and is made of pressed tin and mirrors. It is on an outdoor wall next to the High Line, between West 21st and West 22nd Streets.

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