El Anatsui    Fading cloth

Artist's statement on materials and process

About six years ago I found a big bag of liquor bottle tops apparently thrown away in the bush. At the time I was searching for a pot monument (pillars of stacked pots, each of which represents a bereavement in the village) that I had seen decades before in that locality. I kept the bottle caps in the studio for several months until the idea eventually came to me that by stitching them together I could get them to articulate some statement. When the process of stitching got underway, I discovered that the result resembled a real fabric cloth. Incidentally too, the colours of the caps seemed to replicate those of traditional kente cloths. In effect the process was subverting the stereotype of metal as a stiff, rigid medium and rather showing it as a soft, pliable, almost sensuous material capable of attaining immense dimensions and being adapted to specific spaces.

To me, the bottle tops encapsulate the essence of the alcoholic drinks which were brought to Africa by Europeans as trade items at the time of the earliest contact between the two peoples. Almost all the brands I use are locally distilled. I now source the caps from distillers around Nsukka, where I live and work. I don’t see what I do as recycling; I transform the caps into something else.

If there is a direct link between the bottle tops and the fabric cloths, it is probably the fact that they all have names linked to events, people, historical or current issues. Take Ecomog gin: this refers to the regional military intervention force which brought the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia to an end. The brandy called Ebeano (meaning ‘where we are now’) references a popular electioneering slogan from the last political polls in the state in which I live. Similarly kente cloths are given names like takpekpe le Anloga (conference at Anloga) or can be named after a personality.

Fading cloth is more of a formalistic name, with the full blooded reds at the top and bottom of the cloth yielding to creams and other pale colours in the centre.

Flattening and stitching the caps is laborious and repetitive – a very different process to my earlier work using power tools on wood. I have several assistants working with me, and we start with strips and eventually assemble them into the final composite results. The process of stitching, especially the repetitive aspect, slows down action and I believe makes thinking deeper. It’s like the effect of a good mantra on the mind.


Born in 1944 in Ghana, Anatsui has a Postgraduate Diploma in Art Education from the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi. He is Professor of Sculpture at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, where he has lectured since 1975. He exhibited at the 1990 Venice Biennale, where he received an honourable mention, and was included on the first Johannesburg Biennale in 1995. His most recent solo exhibition Gawu has toured England, Wales and Ireland and in August 2005 opened at the Samuel P Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in the United States. He is included on the anthology exhibition Africa Remix, which has toured Düsseldorf, London and Paris and travels to Tokyo and other cities in 2006/7.

El Anatsui is represented by the October Gallery - see http://www.octobergallery.co.uk/artists/anatsui/index.shtml

© 2005 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.