Weave

‘They Are Given a New Life’: Watch Ghanaian Artist El Anatsui Weave Bottle Caps Into His Monumental, Innovative Sculptures


Ghanaian artist El Anatsui creates monumental assemblage sculptures woven from colorful, shiny objects, creating tactile curtains that seem to breathe on their own. The works sell routinely for more than one million dollars each at auction, but their beginnings are humble.

The works may be made from pieces of wood, metal, ceramic, and—most often—bottle caps, but they are not rigid at all. In fact, Anatsui says “as a matter of principle” the works don’t come with installation instructions: “since they are so free and so loose and so flexible, it would be difficult to have a specific format for any one of them at any time.”

The artist now lives in Nigeria. He employs local studio assistants from his neighborhood to create an environment of camaraderie and community.

Studio assistants working on El Anatsui's massive assemblages. Photo: production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 6 episode, "Change." © Art21, Inc. 2012.

Studio assistants working on El Anatsui’s massive assemblages. Photo: production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 6 episode, “Change.” © Art21, Inc. 2012.

In an exclusive interview with Art21 filmed back in 2012 as part of the Art in the Twenty-First Century series, Anatsui explained why he uses bottle caps from discarded liquor bottles as such a primary medium. “How did liquor come into my culture and what does it mean?” he asks in the film, before describing the system of European traders who descended upon Africa, ultimately trading drinks for slaves who were brought to America to “grow more cotton and sugar cane to make more drink”—a continuous a cycle of trauma and colonization. 

Another reason the artist was drawn to the caps is because an accumulation of the colorful, shiny baubles appears to replicate the popular kente cloth fabric of Ghana, though he adds that this provided its own difficulty because viewers began to look at the works as textiles, an art form that is often derided and not appreciated as fine art.

The artist is adamant that his practice shouldn’t be considered a form of recycling, because he says it doesn’t pertain to the industrial process. Instead, the process is more akin to reincarnation. “I don’t, for instance, return the bottle caps back as mere bottle caps,” telling Art21. “They are given a new life and I make them not objects that do something utilitarian, but objects of contemplation.” 

Right now through November 14, El Anatsui’s work is on view at the Conciergerie in Paris in a site specific exhibition curated by  N’Goné Fall, general commissioner of the Africa2020 Season at the institution. Metal assemblages are installed surrounding the Hallway of Men-at-Arms in a winding route that alludes to the Seine, tracing a path through the medieval architecture of the city and its myriad cultural influences.

The rivers flow, they do change their course,” the artist tells Art21, “And I think my work has principally been about change and non-fixity of things, the fact that things are there and they have to grow old and change and do all kinds of things.” Laughing he insists, “It’s not because I’m old now!”

 

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “El Anatsui” is on view at the Conciergerie through November 14, 2021.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Midnight Publishing Group News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook:

‘I’ve Always Been a City Girl With a Nature Brain’: Watch Sculptor Wangechi Mutu Weave Worlds Together in Her Sculpture


In 2019, Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu made history with the installation of her gleaming bronze sculptures flanking the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s facade, marking the first time since the building was completed in 1902 that freestanding artworks occupied the space.

The NewOnes, will free Us (2019), as the work was called, were caryatids—traditionally female sculptures meant to provide metaphorical and physical support. But in Mutu’s reimagining, instead of passively supporting they are liberated from their historic place of servitude, presented as individuals of strength and beauty, bringing in a perspective of feminist autonomy.

The artist’s two-decade career has been one of exploration and innovation. Mutu’s body of work ranges from fluid watercolor collages to sculpture, capturing her experience and respect for the natural world while infusing themes of the supernatural and mythological.

In an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of its Extended Play series, Mutu is filmed in her Nairobi studio, where an array of works of varying media are in progress. In the video, the artist describes her childhood in Kenya, where she attended an all-girls Catholic school that exuded “all kinds of feminine energy.” Mutu muses about the contradictions in her education, since during the 1970s and ’80s, the students learned British and European history, but not the history or literature of Africa, since so much of the Kenyan population was Christianized.

Wangechi Mutu, <i>Mirror Faced I; Mirror Faced II; <i>and </i> <i>Mirror Faced III</i> all (2020). © Wangechi Mutu, courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery.

Wangechi Mutu, Mirror Faced I; Mirror Faced II; Mirror Faced III all (2020). © Wangechi Mutu, courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery.

That gap in her education sparked the artist’s interest in other contradictions within various cultures. One of the most obvious and disconcerting to the artist, was how “we worship the image of the woman but denigrate the actual human being of woman,” a fact which she says is “obviously something that has plagued us for a long time.” Other tensions she found through photography, which she describes as an invaluable tool for her work, often providing the backdrop for her dense collages and paintings.

Mutu began exploring how photography and colonization have grown in tandem. “The ‘other’ was photographed, and packaged, and consumed,” Mutu says. “Seeing yourself represented that way impacted you as a colonized ‘other,’ and how your image essentially became who you were.”

Right now at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, Mutu’s collages, paintings, and sculptural human-animal forms are installed within the classical architecture and Western art of the museum, challenging its dominant atmosphere. “When there is a singular voice or story,” Mutu explains, “it tends to be domineering, problematic, and often fictional.”

 

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, below. “Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?” is on view at the Legion of Honor Museum through November 7, 2021.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Midnight Publishing Group News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org

 

 

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook: