Bottle Tops, The Art of El Anatsui
The picture book Bottle Tops, The Art of El Anatsui introduces El, as he calls himself, and his innovative process of creating massive assemblages that are both textile-like and sculptural. A living artist born in Ghana, West Africa, El lives, teaches and works as an artist at the University of Nsukka in Nigeria, West Africa. He has built an international reputation for his unusual, monumental works created with non-traditional (discarded) materials. On this side of the Atlantic, one might be tempted to muse that this artist is working with discarded materials because he doesn’t have access to “real” art materials. But that reasoning would be falling into a stereotypical trap. El has chosen his material quite deliberately because it allows him to explore issues that are front and center for an artist like El: the histories of Ghana and Nigeria linked to Africa’s colonial legacy as well as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, consumerism, and the very pressing issues of the environment. Some of these issues confront not only African artists, but artists the world over.
Author Alison Goldberg relates El Anatsui’s formative artistic and educational experiences which included drawing, plaster casting, and painting, art forms based on European artistic traditions. When El Anatsui began his schooling, his country – known then as the Gold Coast – was still a British colony. Its educational system was based on a British model and the art curriculum focused on European art and history, to the exclusion of African art and history. After independence in 1957, El attended the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) where he studied art and education. Subsequently he became lecturer at the then Specialist Training College, now University of Education in Ghana. At the age of 32, with university degrees in hand, he moved to Nigeria to begin a forty plus year career teaching art at the University of Nsukka where he joined other notable Nigerian artists. As an artist he began his search for his own artistic heritage by working in ceramics and wood, as well as painting and printmaking.
Bottle Tops explains how El Anatsui came to work with bottle tops (caps) and the aluminum wrappers around tops of liquor bottles. Alcohol was a commodity that at one point was traded for the enslaved. On a walk to the university, a large bag of discarded bottle caps in bushes caught his eyes. Curious about these shiny, colorful tops, he took them to his studio and began toying with them. With the aid of assistants, it would take about two years of experimentation before El produced something which he felt showed promise, met his artistic criteria and could tell a story. The process involved combining thousands of flattened bottle tops and aluminum bottle wrappings with copper wire and connecting them into large patchworks. Multiple patchworks were then combined to create an even larger work. These became malleable, flexible sculptures that could be folded in a variety of ways and suspended on a large wall. The book illustrates this process well over several pages with details of the joining process as well as the assembling of the patches. Eventually El Anatsui recognized a link between his creations and the work of his father, a master weaver of Kente.
El conceived something so compelling and monumental, the whole art world took note. His novel transformations of found resources have been displayed in museums and galleries in Africa, Europe, Japan, America and acquired by museums in all these locations.
Goldberg notes that these huge flexible assemblages do not require a fixed way of display. El Anatsui allows the curators/gallerists the option to determine how his works should be presented, whether hung from a wall, or laid on a floor. Many of El’s works are so large and flexible they can cover the outside of a building. The photograph of Fresh and Fading Memories at the conclusion of the story illustrates the work’s monumental scale.
Elizabeth Zunon’s illustrations for Bottle Tops are colorful and engaging. She employs collage with painted features for the figurative elements set against a painted, sometimes textured background. This results in very animated, engaging pages. She captures the scale of El’s assemblages particularly well on the double spread where she created an aerial view of El’s assistants combining various segments for El to document. However, I wonder whether El Anatsui’s earlier works in wood might have been better served with photographs rather than drawn illustrations. The illustrations also do not capture the innovations which El created, especially with Erosion which he creates with a chain saw. One aspect in the compelling narrative about this extraordinary artist which might have been emphasized more is the fact that Ghana and Nigeria had university systems from which El Anatsui benefitted. The text refers to universities in a general way, but failing to name them, relegates them to anonymity.
The back matter of the book includes useful resources. The Author’s Note explains how Ms. Goldberg, while in Ghana, was introduced to El Anatsui’s earlier works which prompted her to pursue learning and writing about him. Text Resources indicates the extensive research the author undertook to write Bottle Tops. It provides a useful bibliography of major writings about the artist as well as interesting websites. Quotation Sources, Photo Credits, and Featured Artworks provide the appropriate credits for quotations, photographs and artworks cited throughout the book. A final section Art Activity with Recycled Materials invites readers to engage with their found objects in the spirit of transformation, much like El Anatsui.
Bottle Tops is a wonderful first to what should become a series on contemporary African artists.
Veronika Jenke, EdD. Retired, Curator of Education
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Published in Africa Access Review (November 22, 2022)
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