Visually arresting in its free-flowing dance between painting and sculpture, Wade in the Water is testament to El Anatsui’s ground-breaking artistic output. Employing found bottle-caps and metal seals in shimmering silver, red, blue, and gold, the present work is an outstanding, recent example of Anatsui’s seminal corpus of metal mosaics that are at once fluid and fragile. The present work has been donated by the artist, and the proceeds will support the Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia, its endowment campaign, and the creation of the El Anatsui Fellowships to endow a pair of annual residences for African Artists. Brandywine Workshops and Archives is a diversity-driven, non-profit cultural institution that produces and shares art to connect, inspire and build bridges among global communities. Today Brandywine fully funds short-term residences for artists to produce limited edition, original prints using traditional media or a combination of traditional media with new processes based in current and emerging technologies. Early Visiting Artists-in-Residence projects were started in 1975 working with the Abstract Expressionist artist Sam Gilliam. During the award’s early history, other artists such as Richard Hunt, James Wells, and Elizabeth Catlett were among those honoured. El Anatsui was the recipient of the Brandywine Workshop and Archives Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, and that year, he used various sheets of aluminium bottle-tops sewn together – the material for which he is best-known – as the starting point for his printmaking. The resulting hand-cut colour lithograph Untitled 201722 was printed in an edition of 70. In 2021 Anatsui stitched together the pieces that were photographed for the print, creating the present work, Wade in the Water.
“I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up. I think that’s what has been happening in Africa for a long time, in fact not only in Africa but in the whole world, except that maybe in the West they have developed these ‘professional’ materials. But I don’t think that working with such prescribed materials would be very interested to me – industrially produced colours for painting. I believe that colour is inherent in everything and it’s possible to get colour from around you, and that you’re better off picking something which relates to your circumstances and your environment than going to buy a ready-made colour.”
The bottle-cap works build upon the legacy of twentieth-century abstraction and amalgamate a plethora of cultural and art historical influences. Writer and critic Julian Lucas asserts of Anatsui’s early rise to fame, “In a highly fractionalized art world, Anatsui found universal acclaim. To formalists, he was an Abstract Expressionist who worked in aluminium refuse; to the postmodern and the post-colonially minded, a maverick interrogator of consumption and commerce; to Old Guard Africanists, a renewer of ancient craft traditions. To most, his work was simply beautiful, with transcendent aspirations rare in the self-reflexive context of contemporary art. As it turned out, the unfixed form wasn’t just a way of sculpting. It was the principle of a career that had opened itself to the world without sacrificing its integrity” (Julian Lucas, “How El Anatsui Broke the Seal on Contemporary Art”, The New Yorker, 11 January 2021, online). Anatsui's practice emphasises the boundary between our knowledge of the past and the reality of historical events, and his fluid sculptures often become a symbol of the colonial destruction of African cultures. The title of the present work, Wade in the Water, is reminiscent of the song of the same title associated with the Underground Railroad and the genre of Sorrow Songs in the American south at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Like much of Anatsui's sculptural practice, Wade in the Water therefore confronts historical atrocities, and memorialises the marginalised.
Anatsui discovered the bottle caps and seals as artistic media in 1998, when walking in the outskirts of Nsukka, the Nigerian town where the artist lives and works. He found a bag of discarded loose caps on the roadside and kept them in his studio for two years before employing them in his sculptural work. The caps opened up a vast spectrum of possibilities, later imbuing in Anatsui’s sculpture a distinct flexibility and freedom, comprising a material that was simultaneously malleable, local, plentiful and inexpensive. Today, his choice of found materials is not limited to liquor bottle caps, but rather includes caps from a spectrum of consumer goods, including medicine, wine, olive oil, and bitters, as well as pieces of aluminium roofing strips, the latter of which give his compositions specific hues of blue, green and beige. Such materials introduce the textures, structure and flow of Anatsui’s local Nsukka cityscape: “I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up. I think that’s what has been happening in Africa for a long time, in fact not only in Africa but in the whole world, except that maybe in the West they have developed these ‘professional’ materials. But I don’t think that working with such prescribed materials would be very interested to me – industrially produced colours for painting. I believe that colour is inherent in everything and it’s possible to get colour from around you, and that you’re better off picking something which relates to your circumstances and your environment than going to buy a ready-made colour” (El Anatsui quoted in: Polly Savage, “El Anatsui: Contexts Textiles and Gin,” Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings, n.p.). Anatsui’s compositions thus transform simple, everyday materials integral to his local surroundings into striking, large-scale installations, thus elevating such discarded objects into the realm of fine art.
Omitting any preliminary drawings, Anatsui’s visual process usually begins without knowing exactly what the composition will look like until it is installed; he thus engages with an element of chance in the execution of his large-scale mosaics. In the creation of these works, studio assistants fold bottle caps in a manner evocative of origami, some folded into small squares and others shaped more intricately. The assistants then fuse the sections of sewn bottle caps together with Anatsui directing the assembly from above using a laser pointer. He often employs local workers, from students and teenagers to teachers and civil workers, ultimately operating his studio workshop in a way that economically serves the local Nsukka community. Anatsui himself has said, “What I’m interested in is the fact of many hands. When people see work like that, they should be able to feel the presence of those people” (El Anatsui quoted in: ibid., online). The bottle caps often retain traces and fingerprints of the hands that twisted them off bottles in the first place and then discarded them, and indeed the hands of his studio assistants who assemble them into luminous, shimmering mosaics. Anatsui’s practice and choice of media thus speaks to a socially engaged art form, and to relational aesthetics – a visual language that is based on, or inspired by, human relations and their social context. In this way, Anatsui’s work can be compared to his American contemporary Mark Bradford, whose works also employs found materials, such as hairdressers’ end papers, remnants of billboards, posters and graffitied logos in their interrogation of pre-existing social norms. In the way that Bradford’s canvases incorporates elements of daily life into his canvases, so too do Anatsui’s sculptures, for often a liquor label or manufacturers stamp is visible amongst the shimmering silver and red caps. As writer and critic Julian Lucas writes, “A mesh of liquor-bottle caps wasn’t a static thing but a kind of tactile ‘choir’, distilling opaque, elusive flashes from a community’s life” (ibid., online).
Anatsui leaves the installation of each work up to the collector or curator, relishing in the compositional possibilities afforded by the multifarious ways in which the hanging sculptures can be folded and draped. His large-scale, shimmering metal mosaics now reside in some of the top museums of contemporary art around the world, including but not limited to, The Broad, Los Angeles (Intermittent Signals, 2009), The Museum of Modern Art, New York (Bleeding Takari II, 2007 and Diaspora (for Parkett no. 90), 2012) The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi (Earth’s Skin, 2007); and Zeit Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, for which he was commissioned to create his largest bottle-cap sculpture to date, now residing in the museum’s expansive atrium (Searching for Connection, 2013). Such institutional acquisitions are evidence of Anatsui’s great significance as a foremost sculptor of our time. His work was the focus of a recent, career-spanning survey Triumphant Scale that travelled from Haus der Kunst, Munich to Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, and Kunstmuseum Bern between March 2019 and June 2020. The most comprehensive presentation of the artist’s oeuvre thus far, the exhibition focused on the magnificent, monumental nature of Anatsui’s sculptural output, with a central focus on his bottle-cap works of the last two decades.
Disassembled, fragmented, and slowly refashioned into glimmering mosaics, Anatsui’s bottle-caps have defined a new space within contemporary sculpture. Extending the possibilities of abstraction and expertly navigating the boundaries between painting and sculpture, one and two dimensionality, freedom and fluidity, Anatsui’s socially engaged practice reflects historical themes of consumption and globalization, powerfully challenging our systems of value and pre-conceived social norms. Transforming found objects into fine art, Wade in the Water challenges the viewer to examine their preconceptions of waste material, its relationship to beauty and how sculpture today cannot be confined to strict definitions.