El Anatsui’s use of bottle tops began in 1998 when, while taking an exploratory walk, the artist stumbled upon a bag of discarded ‘Peak’ branded milk-tin can lids. Anatsui left the bottle tops in his studio for several months before the idea came to him ‘that by stitching them together [he] could get them to articulate some statement. When the process of stitching got underway, [he] discovered that the result resembled a real fabric cloth.’ (Susan Vogel, El Anatsui Art and Life, p. 54) This discovery inspired him to begin creating metal sheet works such as Break Project (1999) and Incoming Wave (1999), a body of work that prefigures his aluminium bottle cap tapestries. Today, El Anatsui’s works can be 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.
The success of El Anatsui’s bottle cap works can be attributed to the artist’s ability to effortlessly manipulate the rigid metallic material in a way that creates a finished work that is robust yet malleable and luxurious. The final sculpture is incredibly cloth-like; spatially ephemeral, taking on a new life each time it is hung in a new space, allowing for infinitely variable folds and creases. El Anatsui uses a vast spectrum of colours, from black, gold and silver, to bright colours of blue, red, yellow, pink and purple. The way in which Anatsui positions the materials creates a painterly impression for the observer, with various scenes such as landscapes and abstract images seeming to emerge from the rippling, textured surface.
Living and working in Nigeria, the Ghanaian born artist explores the importance and symbolism of textile through his work, often referencing 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 Africans 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.). The geometric patterns of these historic clothes are often reflected in El Anatsui’s works. In the present work, diagonal and horizontal lines, defined by changes in colour, move across the piece resembling a zebra crossing or a zebra hide.
El Anatsui created Zebra Crossing II in 2007, the same year that the artist was invited to exhibit his works at the Venice Biennale in the Palazzo Fortuny and Arsenale. The artist gained international recognition through several key exhibitions such as Africa Remix (2004-2007), which travelled to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Hayward Gallery in London, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Museum Kunst Palast in Dusseldorf, Johannesburg Art Gallery and Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.
El Anatsui has enjoyed several ground-breaking exhibitions such as the internationally touring exhibition, When I Last Wrote to you About Africa in 2010 and a solo show in 2008 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington D.C. The artist has continued to achieve global recognition. In 2014, El Anatsui became an honorary Royal Academician and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the oldest scholary societies in the United States. El Anatsui has received several prestigious awards such as the 2015 Venice Biennale Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, the 2009 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art 30th Anniversary Award and the 2017 Praenium Imperiale Award for Sculpture. In 2019, Munich’s Haus der Kunst will host El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale, the artist’s largest retrospective to date and Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town will install El Anatsui’s , TSIATSIA- searching for connection in their central atrium.
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