- El Anatsui
- aluminium and copper wire
- 210 by 305cm.
- 82 3/4 by 120in.
- Executed in 2006.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
"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... 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 ready-made colour" The artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, October Gallery, El Anatsui, 2005, n.p.)
Healer, 2006, is a stunning and incredibly rare example of El Anatsui's inimitable 'cloth series' and by far the most significant work by the artist to come to auction. For many, Anatsui's exquisite, lustrous 'textile' made up of thousands upon thousands of colourful bottle-tops that draped the Gothic façade of the Palazzo Fortuny, was the undisputed highlight of the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. Together with the concomitant installation of major cloth series works in the Arsenale, curated by Robert Storr, it announced El Anatsui as one of the most interesting and challenging sculptors working today. The leading light of a number of African artists that were brought to pre-eminence by the 2005 travelling exhibition Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, Anatsui's works are today found in major institutional collections across the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the British Museum, London.
Living and working in Nigeria and born in Ghana, home to some of the most diverse and vibrant traditions of textile production in the world, El Anatsui is acutely aware of the symbolic and signifying potential of cloth. The present work, with its complex, dazzling, multicoloured patterns of bright hues, geometric shapes and bold design, is reminiscent of traditional kente cloth of the Ashanti people of Ghana. Originally the sacred cloth of kings worn for official occasions, over time the use of kente became more widespread but always conferred importance. As the artist explains, "Cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners... Their capacity and application to commemorate events, issues, persons and objectives outside of themselves are so immense." (Exhibition Catalogue, London, October Gallery, El Anatsui, 2005, n.p.).
In Healer, Anatsui alludes to the complex history, tradition and meanings of traditional cloths in an exquisite sculpture made up of discarded, brightly-coloured bottle-tops emblazoned with the brand names of well-known liquors consumed by millions across the African continent. Each cap is flattened, punctured and stitched together with fine copper wire. Evolving organically and unpredictably under the artist's direction, the intricate design transforms rigid, metal material into something malleable and luxurious. The final sculpture is spatially ephemeral, taking on a new life each time it is hung in a new space, allowing infinitely variable folds and creases. This is an element that appeals to the artist, who encourages collectors and curators to participate in the artwork by hanging it in their idiosyncratic way.
The fact that Healer is made of gin and whisky bottle tops, the hard spirits that have plagued civilisations and introduced social ills, interweaves another important layer of meaning into the tapestry. As early as the fifteenth century, textiles were traded in West Africa by Europeans seeking to acquire gold and eventually slaves. Imported silks were sold to Ashanti weavers who valued in particular the vibrant reds that could not be achieved with local dyes. By the Seventeenth century, despite a thriving indigenous textile production, sumptuous cloths were traded for slaves in Benin. Liquor was another commodity traded by Westerners for slaves, hence these bottle tops take on an extra resonance. By the Nineteenth century, gin replaced cowries as the common currency in Lagos and its possession conferred social status. Spirits were imported from distilleries in Liverpool and rum - made from the by-products of sugar cane production – was imported from the Caribbean, for which, ironically, Africa had provided the back-breaking labour.
Hence the sumptuous and evocative shimmering surfaces of Healer gently alert us to the human histories and relationships that have shaped contemporary Africa. Never forceful, Anatsui's subject is all the more powerful because of the subtlety and intelligence of its delivery. On the one hand a very personal sculpture that deals with the artist's own cultural make-up, its overriding themes dovetail in with profound and universal themes that affect an entire continent. The allusion to kente cloth harks back to the stabilising traditions of a country, while the bottle tops allude to the destructive power of trade, globalisation and consumption. Like threads in a tapestry these themes weave together effortlessly to produce an incredibly powerful and beautiful work of art, which, like all great art, stuns us into contemplation of emotive themes.