TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Monday, February 23, 2009

El Anatsui: Making Garbage Speak

I recently posted about Ellie's Cross Cultural Collaborative program in Ghana. She e-mailed me today about El Anatsui, an artist native of Ghana who has lived in Nigeria for many years and asked if I was familiar with his work. I wasn't. After exploring some links, I just had to share some of his work here on Fiber Focus as he embodies the essence of what I would like to see happen in this blog.

For a long time, I have felt the need help lessen the divide between "artists" and "artisans" which I believe uses ethnocentric language to categorize work that might have similar functions and skill levels yet results in a huge disparity of recognition and price point. The key, I believe, has to do with the educational level and language used by the maker in his or her description of the work. The first level of separation happens between developed and underdeveloped countries, while the second happens within those same countries, between the educated who have access to both language skills and to the markets that will support their prices.

El Anatsui has embraced the divide and consciously uses his fine art training to break out of that mold into one which addresses societal issues and the language of the people. He explains how if he chooses to work with bronze, the material is alien to the population. But, if he uses a Coke bottle, everybody knows what that is, and in knowing, they can see his work. The photos I chose for this post all resemble textiles, although Anatsui thinks of them as sculptures. He does acknowledge that he grew up among textile weavers and his father and brothers wore kinte cloths. Many of Anatsui's pieces are dimensional and free standing. The Metropolitan Museum video below has an excellent interview with the artist, where he speaks of how his pieces are assembled and how they can be displayed.

The transformation of garbage into something so beautiful is a powerful testament to how we perceive our surroundings. El Anatsui speaks of beauty as not only ocular, but as something that also has a qualitative value. A person can have physical beauty, but the inner qualities are what makes that beauty powerful and valuable. In the same way, his work has a definite beauty of composition which comes to life when the viewer understands and relates to the message.

As I was looking at his work, it occurred to me that he can only make his statement because he has a receptive audience who understands what he is trying to say. El Anatsui has the language he needs to bridge that gap between the monied institutions who can afford to house, display and purchase his work, as well as the life and cultural experience where he can communicate to the uneducated masses. Without that language, surely his special vision of the potential and message of garbage would have remained just that, garbage.

Aluminum and copper wire
Fowler Museum at UCLA, museum purchase, X2007.7.1

Africans have a long history of using garbage as a natural resource. Their tin painted suitcases, wire toys, pop can cars, tire sandals, papier mache bowls, recycled vinyl record beads and inner tube furniture have been raw materials for craft production for decades. If you are poor and you have the skills to weave, build, solder or cut, you can eek out a living with what you have around you. These crafts have had success with co-ops, fair trade groups and collectors. But, El Anatsui takes this tradition to another level. The sheer volume and size of his works make a powerful impact on the viewer. You look at it and try to imagine how many wine bottle wrappings it took to make this piece. Then you realize that this is nothing compared to what is thrown away daily.

As our natural resources begin to run out, so will the availability of certain types of garbage. Copper wire used to be thrown about and now there are stories here in the United States of houses for sale being stripped during the night of anything containing copper. What will happen when plastics, aluminum, and tin become valuable? Hopefully, it will force us to establish better recycling systems and biodegradable containers. Meanwhile, we can let El Anatsui use his garbage to speak to us. If we listen, we will see our shared histories: our past and our future.


  1. Tomorrow I'm going to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are two exhibits I want to see. Number One is an African textile exhibit which includes an installation by El Anastu (the piece the video is about, I think). I am REALLY looking forward to this. Number Two is an exhibit of jewelry by Calder. Yummy! Then I'm meeting a very dear friend to play for a while and break bread together. Sounds like a good day! I'm enjoying it already! :)

  2. Thnak you for highlighting El Anatsui's work. I have been in love with it since I saw a photo in a newspaper. If any readers are in London there are two of his pieces in the African Gallery of the British Museum ( its free!) and for further information the October Gallery has a microsite about the artists here: http://www.octobergallery.co.uk/microsites/anatsui/

  3. Stunning work. And so meaningful. Thank you for sharing all these great images.

  4. What a fascinating subject, Rayela! I hadn't heard of El Anatsui's work - it is stunning. And your blog is just outstanding, girl! keep up the good work!


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.


Related Posts with Thumbnails