January 13, 2016

Sydney Festival 2016: El Anatsui creates multi-million dollar artworks from bottle tops

By Andrew Taylor 12 JAN 2016

El Anatsui​ owes a debt of gratitude to drinkers of whiskey, rum and other hard liquor.

It is their diligent alcohol consumption that makes it possible for the Ghanaian artist to create works such as Blema, a large tapestry-like sculpture made of bottle caps that shimmers like a Gustav Klimt painting.

“The used bottles are recycled and in the process the tops are removed and not thrown away. They are kept because that’s precious aluminium,” he says. “I go to the distillers and buy these used bottle tops.”

Anatsui says he does not know if the drinkers in his adopted home of Nsukka in Nigeria, where he has taught at a university since the 1970s, realise their artistic contribution.

“I have some idea about the level of consumption that’s going on,” he says. “When it’s going down and when it’s up.”

Anatsui is in Sydney for the opening of a retrospective of his work El Anatsui: Five Decades at Carriageworks, as part of the 2016 Sydney Festival.

At first glance many of Anatsui’s works appear to be made from precious metals instead of discarded objects including wood, aluminium printing plates and tin boxes or labels from grocery items.

His art is certainly valued by art collectors – the 2003 Adinkra Sasa​, also made with aluminium bottle caps, is worth more than $US2 million ($2.86 million), Blema is valued at $US1.6 million and Garden Wall is valued at $US2.5 million.

Anatsui’s New World Map tapestry sold for a record-breaking £541,250 at a Bonhams auction of African art in 2012.

Anatsui, who was born in 1944, exhibited at the 2007 Venice Biennale and was awarded a Gold Lion for lifetime achievement at last year’s event. He also attracted attention after his Broken Bridge II, made of recycled pressed tin and mirrors, was draped over an outdoor wall next to New York’s High Line in 2013.

Yet he is not precious about the installation of his artworks, with curators free to rumple the surfaces of wall hangings to create new wrinkles, while flattening out previous bumps.

Anatsui’s art dwells on themes ranging from discovering new uses for damaged and discarded objects to the history of colonial and post-colonial Africa.

“When I working on them, my focus wasn’t on the fact that they would create something beautiful,” he says. “I wanted something that has content more than is beautiful. But it looks like people get drawn to the beauty aspect of it more than the content aspect.”

The exhibition is the first Schwartz Carriageworks project funded by a $500,000 donation from gallery owner Anna Schwartz to develop a series of international and Australian shows over five years.

The 30-odd works on display include ceramics, prints, large wall hangings and floor sculptures that incorporate West African adinkra​ symbols.

In contrast, the 2011 work Garden Wall, which is designed to evoke a weathered wall covered in moss and cracked with age, was inspired by his fascination with walls.

Anatsui says walls may serve a different purpose from that which was intended when they were built.

“The idea is to protect something or hide something,” he says. “But what it does it sets your imagination ablaze and imagination has no boundaries. You start imagining so many things that are happening behind it.”

“In the process, the wall has enabled you to see more than the eyes could have seen.”

El Anatsui: Five Decades is at Carriageworks until March 6.

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