20th Century and Contemporary, African Studies, Museums/Exhibits

To London, with Love: Bottled Up Memories from El Anatsui

Ivan Lett–

Finally, I get to sneak in a post for the month. But because I’m last to go, both July’s Global and International Studies theme and August’s Modern and Contemporary Art theme are on my mind. When I visited the British Museum earlier this year, the first piece I saw as I entered the Sainsbury African galleries was a large, intricately woven work made of foil wrappers from recycled bottles. The instant, superficial reaction was, of course: so shiny, but it takes only a moment to remember why we celebrate art, the creations of others, and the shared humanity those pieces seek to represent.

The artist is El Anatsui, a sculptor born in the British Colony of the Gold Coast (Ghana), and his work, Man’s Cloth, catalyzes conversation about the individual’s place in our grander global scheme. Drawing from weaving styles reminiscent of Kente cloth, the nearly 10 x 12ft. gawu sculpture reflects how the individual encounters everyday, commonplace materials, juxtaposed with consumer use and the transformation of purpose across international borders. It calls upon both tradition and modernity; memory and loss, to demonstrate how traded items—in this case, packaged European commodities like alcohol being traded for African slaves—have tied different histories together, leading into the daily experiences of our present.

I had been particularly eager to see El Anatsui’s work because YUP has now published the accompanying catalog to “El Anatsui”, an exhibition organized by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, on view now until October 16, displaying some of his more recent works such as Strips of Earth’s Skin (2008), Intermittent Signals (2009), and Delta (2010), and showing how his style and use of recycled materials have continued to develop. Even larger than Man’s Cloth, (Intermittent Signals is 35ft. wide), the colors and shapes fluidly connect with each other, almost more like paintings than sculptures, as the legacy of colonialism’s mundane waste becomes an object of beauty for us to deeply consider. El Anatsui at the Clark, gives a concise introduction to El Anatsui’s career, featuring an illustrated essay by Alisa LaGamma, who is curator in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as a conversation between El Anatsui himself and artist, curator, and Princeton professor, Chika Okeke-Agulu, in which the two discuss the themes of history, economy, sustainability, and identity explored within Anatsui’s work.


Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *