African, born 1944
Skin of Earth, 2006
Aluminum and copper wire, 366 x 477.5
Ilene and Stanley Gold Collection, Los Angeles
In keeping with the African principle that things should never be discarded, contemporary artist El Anatsui has adopted a personal mandate to “use whatever the environment throws up.” Although liquor and beer bottles are among the very few things recycled in Nigeria, where he works, bottle caps are not. Anatsui collects the caps, flattens them, and stitches them together with copper wire; the result is a sculpture-tapestry that takes on a fluid, cloth-like quality. His bottle-top textiles are inspired by traditional weaving, such as Ghanaian Kente cloth, indicator of status and symbol of African identity. The cloth’s value is measured by the difficulty of execution and by the hours spent on its intricacies, calling to mind the intensive artistic process evident in Skin of Earth.
Traditionally, the woven designs of Kente cloth communicate cultural, social, and political meanings. El Anatsui’s work communicates his concern about recent issues in Africa: sustainability and the detrimental effects of the West’s alcohol trade. Refuse is first reworked into a larger-than-life, golden African status symbol, and then finds its way to the Western art world, reflecting the transformative power of art.