I’ve been dying for a while to see the work of El Anatsui, a Ghanaian sculptor active for much of his career in Nigeria, who has drawn particular international attention for his iconic “bottle-top installations”—huge sheets of metallic ‘textile’ made of thousands of pieces of aluminium sourced from alcohol recycling stations and sewn together with copper wire.
Photographs of these have intrigued and inspired me, but because they are three-dimensional works with a lot of texture, photos cannot even begin to compare with seeing them ‘live’.
At the moment six of these works are exhibited at the Conciergerie in Paris, and a visit there exceeded my expectations. A former royal residence open to the city, the Conciergerie has had many uses over the centuries, including becoming a detention centre under the Terror.
Under the medieval vaults of the Salle des Gens d’armes (Hall of the Soldiers—the 14th-century refectory of the French King’s officers), El Anatsui has produced a poetic installation introducing five natural elements: water, wind, wood, metal and stone. He calls the installation “En quête de liberté” (Seeking freedom)
Besides the six metallic sculptures, using textile and video projection, he has conjured up a reproduction of the Seine, as if two of its arms run through the chamber on old railway sleepers, reflecting the images of waves traversed by the sun.
The sculptures, made from bottle tops and strips of flattened tin cans, hang in the fireplaces. I have taken some detail photos to show the texture, but the actual experience defies description.
Born in Ghana in 1944, El Anatsui creates objects based on traditional Ghanaian beliefs, and is interested in the destruction, transformation, and regeneration of everyday objects. Very few artists make it to the top while living outside metropolitan centres, but El Anatsui has conquered the planet while living and working in the Nigerian university town of Nsukka.
Being overawed by the endless patience it takes to construct these sculptures, as well as the vision necessary to design work on such a large scale, I became curious to see what his methods of production were. I came upon the following fascinating video: