Before posting today, I was trying to remember the first time I saw El Anatsui's work. I think it was at Jack Shainman gallery, where he has been showing for many years; or it may have been at a museum show. It had an immediate resonance for me. When I was in New York in April I visited his wonderful retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum.
The sheer magnitude of the work is what strikes you first- I want to say it's magisterial, because the large pieces seem like robes, or tapestries, and their scale requires interiors that might be seen in a cathedral, or a castle. They sparkle and glisten like jewels and gold leaf. But close inspection reveals that they are made of millions of bits of metal- bottle caps and the little metal sleeve which is wrapped around the neck of liquor bottles and that breaks away from the cap when it's twisted off. Each of them is punched, and wired to its neighbor, and the colors are collected in discrete areas that are then woven together.
Some years ago I went to South Africa, and I knew that there was a tradition of making things with bits of metal, as well as wood, plastic, and whatever was around. El Anatsui is a professor at the University of Nigeria, and his work speaks to so much that is good and not as good in Africa. The continent represents all of the cultural influences of a colonialized area, along with the beauty of traditional tribal forms. El Anatsui's materials come from a distillery in Nsukka. A video being screened at the museum shows huge piles of bottle caps- representing a lot of liquor consumption. The videos also show the artist with his team of artisans, creating portions of the works, then arranging them to be wired together. Now that he is world famous, he has the means to make a lot of work. The retrospective was enormous, and one could mutter that some of the work could have been left out. But some of the pieces were so beautiful, overwhelming really. If the purpose of art is to create a sublime experience, this work is exemplary.
I've shown his work to my students on many occasions. To me, it represents not just the beauty that can be found in mundane, even discarded, materials; how accretion of a unit creates something that transcends its original form; and how work can be made in a collaborative way, forming community among its makers.
There are many other images of El Anatsui's work in the links above, and on other online sites.