El Anatsui is an internationally acclaimed artist who transforms simple materials into complex assemblages that create distinctive visual impact. He uses resources typically discarded such as liquor bottle caps, printing plates and cassava graters to create sculpture that defies categorization. His use of these materials reflects his interest in reuse, transformation, and an intrinsic desire to connect to his continent of Africa while transcending the limitations of place. His work can interrogate the history of colonialism and draw connections between consumption, waste, and the environment, but at the core is his unique formal language that distinguishes his practice.
Anatsui is well-known for large scale sculpture composed of thousands of folded and crumpled pieces of metal sourced from local alcohol recycling stations and bound together with copper wire. These intricate works, which can grow to be massive in scale, are both luminous and weighty, meticulously fabricated yet malleable. He leaves the installations open and encourages the works to take different forms every time they are installed. In the 2003 Fowler Museum catalogue accompanying his touring exhibition El Anatsui: Gawu, he said, “I don’t want to be a dictator. I want to be somebody who suggests things.”
In morphing to fit various installation spaces, Anatsui’s sculptures challenge long-held views of sculpture as something rigid and insistent, opening up his work to exist on its own terms. “I work more like a sculptor and a painter put together,” he said in an interview with Chika Okeke-Agulu that accompanied a solo exhibition at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in 2011. In a New York Times review of his (2010) solo exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery, Roberta Smith wrote “…the works evoke lace but also chain mail; quilts but also animal hides; garments but also mosaic, not to mention the rich ceremonial cloths of numerous cultures. Their drapes and folds have a voluptuous sculptural presence, but also an undeniably glamorous bravado.”
El Anatsui was born in Ghana and currently lives and works between Ghana and Nigeria. In 2015, he was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, the Venice Biennale’s highest honor. In 2019 Haus der Kunst presented a wide-ranging traveling survey of his work titled El Anatsui: Monumental Scale, curated by Curated by Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu and accompanied by a catalogue published by Prestel.
Anatsui has been featured in many international exhibitions, including the Carnegie International (2018), the Marrakech Biennale (2016), and The Contemporary 2 at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan, (2015), and the Venice Biennale in both (1990) and (2007), among others. He has created large scale public installations, including Broken Bridge II, commissioned by High Line Art and presented by Friends of the High Line, on view 2012-2013, and Tsiatsia – Searching for Connection, which was installed on the façade of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2013.
Public collections include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Brooklyn Museum, New York, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Washington, the Akron Art Museum, Ohio, the St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri, the Museum Kunstpalast, Dusseldorf, the Setagaya Museum, Tokyo, and the British Museum, London.
El Anatsui has been represented by Jack Shainman Gallery since 2005. Solo exhibitions with the gallery include Trains of Thought (2014), Pot of Wisdom (2012), El Anatsui (2010), and Zebra Crossing (2008). Five Decades (2015) which originated at the gallery’s upstate location, The School, and traveled to Carriageworks in association with the Sydney Festival, Australia, in 2016.