Lot 54
  • 54

El Anatsui

500,000 - 700,000 GBP
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  • El Anatsui
  • They saw us through puffs of smoke
  • aluminium and copper wire
  • 393.7 by 373.4cm.; 155 by 147in.
  • Executed in 2011.


Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


Colour: The colour in the catalogue illustration is fairly accurate although the red is slightly deeper in the original. Condition: This work is in very good and original condition.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

A scintillating tapestry of glittering crimson, gold and yellow geometric shapes, El Anatsui’s They saw us through puffs of smoke is a majestic example of the artist’s iconic ‘cloth series’. Formed from the most unassuming of materials – discarded bottle caps and metal tops from brands such as Castello and Flying Horse beer – in the present work Anatsui has masterfully woven together rigid elements to create a soft pliable, sensuous ‘cloth’ that luxuriously drapes itself across the wall as though a shimmering cascade. In doing so, They saw us through puffs of smoke innovatively alludes to both the complex history and heritage of traditional West African cloths and the impact of globalisation and consumerism on the cultural landscape of West Africa. The forerunner of a generation of African artists who grew up during the political upheaval in Africa in the 1960s and came to critical prominence as a result of the 2004-05 travelling exhibition Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, Anatsui’s works can now be found in major international collections, such as The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the Metropolitan Museum, New York. His opulent cloth-like works have also been draped over the facades of important cultural institutions such as San Marco Cathedral in Venice during the Biennale in 2007 and more recently the epic exterior of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2013, the same year as his critically acclaimed travelling exhibition Gravity and Grace at the Brooklyn Museum.  

Anatsui first came across his now famed liquor bottle tops by chance in 1998 when he found a discarded pile in the bushes near his studio in Nsukka, Nigeria. Instantly striking a chord with the artist, Anatsui recalls: “when I saw the bottle tops, what struck me was that they are from bottles that have been used, and therefore human hands have touched them... People have really drunk from these bottles, and therefore human hands have left a charge on them” (El Anatsui quoted in: Laura Leffler James, 'Convergence: History, Materials, and the Human Hand – An Interview with El Anatsui', Art Journal, Vol. 67, No. 2, Summer 2008, p. 38). Whilst Anatsui had been experimenting with found materials for some time, the bottle caps inspired him with both their material potential and the relationship to European artistic traditions that they narrated – the illustrious art historical lineage of decorative and luxurious materials that dates back from Medieval and Renaissance traditions to the more recent scintillating gold surfaces of Gustav Klimt’s canvases. Originally a trade commodity, European alcohol became a decisive factor in the slave trade that would come to shape Africa’s history. Now produced and consumed in Africa, the bottle tops that Anatsui uses often have titles that are redolent of modern Africa’s historical figures, events and places. Anatsui seamlessly weaves together these powerful subjects to produce an overwhelmingly evocative and beautiful work, which above all invites contemplation and inspires wonder.