El Anatsui’s Bottle-Cap Tapestries Weave Their Way to London’s October Gallery

Ghana-born, Nigeria-based sculptor El Anatsui has become renowned for transforming discarded cans and bottle tops into colorful, intricate tapestries—enormous surfaces that resemble paintings and textiles in sculptural form. An exhibition of recent works by the artist at October Gallery demonstrates Anatsui’s inventiveness, and the way he melds traditional craft with a contemporary studio art practice. 

Anatsui’s assemblages are typically draped across walls or hung from the ceiling. In addition to several recent works done in his signature style, an early piece by Anatsui is also on view: a totemic carved-wood sculpture called Wonder Masquerade II (1990), which shows the nascent ideas that have been fully realized in the artist’s mature work. 

  • Detail of El Anatsui, AG + BA, 2014. Photo by Jonathan Greet. Image  courtesy October Gallery, London.

    Detail of El Anatsui, AG + BA, 2014. Photo by Jonathan Greet. Image courtesy October Gallery, London.

In AG + BA (2014), Anatsui uses both tactics, juxtaposing a grand, drooping sheet of stitched-together aluminum on the wall with a shield-like sculpture hung from the ceiling. Similar to artists such as Jodie CareyMira Lehr, and Jessica Stockholder, Anatsui blurs the distinctions between sculpture, painting, and weaving, using the color from solid, repurposed materials to create flowing images. “I work more like a sculptor and a painter put together,” Anatsui has said.

  • Detail of El Anatsui, AG + BA, 2014. Photo by Jonathan Greet. Image courtesy October Gallery, London.

    Detail of El Anatsui, AG + BA, 2014. Photo by Jonathan Greet. Image courtesy October Gallery, London.

In an interview with October Gallery, Anatsui stated, “The amazing thing about working with these metallic ‘fabrics’ is that the poverty of the materials used in no way precludes the telling of rich and wonderful stories.” The poverty of the materials is part of the meaning that Anatsui hopes to convey with their use. He is interested in the reuse of found materials by people in the developing world, who reclaim discarded goods out of necessity. Much of the metal used to create his wall pieces comes from waste alcohol bottle caps and milk cans, as in Strained Roots (2014), Iris (2012), and Timespace (2014). The materials are typically cut into small pieces that are flattened and sewn together with copper wire, sometimes with their original logos still intact, adding a pop art flourish that hints at the works of Andy Warhol.

  • Installation view of El Anatsui at October Gallery, London. Courtesy October Gallery and the artist.

    Installation view of El Anatsui at October Gallery, London. Courtesy October Gallery and the artist.

Heart of the Matter (2013), with its use of neutral colors highlighted with yellow at one side, recalls the work of minimalist painters such as Agnes Martin, a connection further underscored by a grid running across the bottom, while the textile-like surface refers to ceremonial and traditional clothing worn in Ghana. Anatsui’s ability to synthesize and make so many strains of art uniquely his own has endeared him to a number of artists and scholars interested in any number of canons, now intermixing in the contemporary era.


Stephen Dillon

El Anatsui” is on view at October Gallery, London, Feb. 12–Mar. 28, 2015.

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