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Frieze Week London 2023

El Anatsui Takes on the Turbine Hall

The Ghanian-born artist is the latest to undertake Hyundai Commission for the cavernous Tate Modern space

BY Allie Biswas in Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine | 10 OCT 23

A discarded bag of bottle caps left at the side of a road could only have been recognized as an auspicious gesture by El Anatsui. It was a fortuitous discovery, made exactly 25 years ago, when he was driving through a mountainside village near Nsukka, a university town in southern Nigeria, where the Ghanaian-born artist has lived for five decades. After he took them back to his studio, the thousands of aluminium screwtops, which had once sealed bottles of whisky and rum, remained intact for months – until Anatsui thought to flatten each one and sew them all together with copper wire. The result was a gleaming mesh of metal, which, from a distance, resembled softly draped fabric.

Realizing the potential of this new material, Anatsui created more substantial sections with it, which finally resulted in a sculpture, Man’s Cloth & Woman’s Cloth (2002). He was convinced. ‘Right from the beginning of my career, the idea of relationships – of numbers and their combinations and permutations – has shaped my direction,’ he explains over email. ‘Eventually, this led me to think of sculpture not as some single absolute. These large sheets offered a level of versatility that allowed for the creation of so many things.’

Man's cloth and woman's cloth by El Anatsui, 2002
Man's Cloth and Woman's Cloth, 2001–2, exhibition installation view. Courtesy: October Gallery, London; photograph: © Andy Keate

Prior to his experiments with bottle tops, Anatsui was already fluent in the resurrection of everyday objects. Entities that stood out to him, sourced from specific locales, had been transfigured over the decades into distinct series of sculptures. His earliest works, made in Ghana, following his graduation in 1969 from the renowned art school in Kumasi, were formed from the round, wooden trays that he noticed in markets. Anatsui punctured them using hot irons, impressing their surfaces with adinkra (symbols representative of Ghanaian proverbs). After arriving in Nsukka in 1975 to take up a teaching position at the university, he started to work in clay. Compelled by the broken vessels from sacrificial rituals at local shrines, and partly in response to the region’s Nok terracotta figures (the remnants of an ancient lost civilization), he made darkly flecked pots that were deliberately fractured. He later salvaged utensils: palm-oil mortars, cassava graters and condensed-milk cans. But it was the bottle top that enabled Anatsui to work with complete freedom – the ‘watchword’ of his practice, as he has described it. ‘The possibilities it presents are endless,’ he tells me.

Over the last 20 years, Anatsui’s bottle-top creations have been draped over the walls of museums and extended across their floors. Made from a material that is inherently malleable, these sprawling sculptures seamlessly unfold in vast, singular spaces. Anatsui’s shining structures have covered the facades of classical buildings – such as Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie in 2010 – resuscitating their surroundings with unrestrained pattern and illusory prowess.

El Anatsui at his studio in Nsukka
El Anatsui inhis studio,Nsukka,1997. Courtesy: El Anatsui Studio

Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall has provided the most monumental setting to date in which to contemplate the artist’s work. Speaking of his new site-specific commission, Anatsui says: ‘I was keen to see how my sculpture would have an impact on the structure of the building itself.’ With the intention of making the experience of the installation more personal by compartmentalizing the ‘truly immense’ space into smaller sections, he has suspended his metal mosaics at three intervals to encourage a narrative passage of sorts.

In the initial stages of the project, Anatsui was intent on making reference to the origins of the Tate fortune. ‘The only brand of sugar we ever used in the Gold Coast and, later, after independence, in Ghana, was Tate & Lyle,’ he says, speaking of his desire to ‘relate aspects of history from my part of the world directly to the museum’. Following his early trials with bottle tops, Anatsui had already begun to reflect on how these metal articles were connected to the transatlantic slave trade that once linked Africa to Europe and the Americas, given that alcohol was a primary currency in this exchange. ‘Liquor and bottle tops will always be associated, for me, with asymmetrical relations of trade,’ he says, ‘yet as I go on working with this medium, it continues to reveal new things to me, far beyond the original set of ideas.’ Anatsui’s response to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall reiterates the mutability that is intrinsic to his sculptures: an unfixed quality that corresponds with his commitment to pursuing nothing but freedom.

Hyundai Commission: El Anatsui: Behind the Red Moon, Installation View, Photo © Tate (Joe Humphrys)
Hyundai Commission, El Anatsui: Behind the Red Moon, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Joe Humphrys

‘Hyundai Commission: El Anatsui’ is on view at Tate Modern from 10 October to 14 April 2024.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, London 2023 under the headline 'The Many Uses of Things'.

Main Image: El Anatsui, 'El Anatsui: Sculptures and Reliefs', 1995. Courtesy: October Gallery, London; photograph: © Andy Keate

Allie Biswas is a writer and editor. She co-edited The Soul of a Nation Reader: Writings by and about Black American Artists, 1960-1980 with Mark Godfrey, published in June 2021. She is based in London, UK.