El Anatsui

Pioneering Ghanaian artist El Anatsui makes monumental, ever-changing sculptures out of bottle caps and rubbish. His sublime artworks have made him an international sensation and earned him a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 56th Venice Biennale.

3 min read

Beginnings: The Birth and Early Life of El Anatsui

In 1944, El Anatsui was born a citizen of the Ewe Nation in a small fishing town on the Southern Coast of Ghana called Anyako. He was the youngest of 32 children on his father's side, who was a master weaver of Kente cloth and a fisherman. As a kid, El watched his father and older siblings weaving and tying together fishing nets – both intricate, repetitive and mediational processes that you can see reflected in El's signature bottle cap technique today.

While El was still a child, his mother died and he was sent to live with his uncle, who was a Presbyterian minister. 

Peak Project, 1999

Awakened, 2012

Rebellions: Unlearning European Art Education

From 1965 to 1969, El Anatsui studied at the prestigious College of Art, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. But despite its acclaim, El was critical of the university as it taught art from a very Western perspective and encouraged students to use traditional European materials like plaster. This made no sense to El as it did not represent his life in West Africa.

In a documentary published by the North Carolina Museum of Art in 2020, El describes his first experiences in art school:

All the things I learnt in art school I set about subverting them. Like the materials that we use in school, I knew that they were strange. Using plaster of Paris and such things which are imported, you know, we don't make plaster in Ghana.

In response, El used familiar materials representing his history and culture as a Ghanaian.

Boundary-Pushing Teaching and Early Works

In 1975, El Anatsui became a professor at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. At this time, he primarily worked with clay and wood, and he incorporated Uli and Nsibidi symbols from southeastern Nigeria into his work, alongside indigenous Adinkra symbols from his native Ghana.

As a teacher, El encouraged his students to use cheap, accessible materials rather than expensive European ones. He also became part of the Nsukka Group:

a group with a shared vision to revive the practice of Uli and incorporate its designs into contemporary art.

Through his art and teaching, El was instrumental in cultivating a new wave of avant-garde art in Nigeria.

Transformations: Bottle Caps Become Monumental Sculptures

Dusasa II, 2007

In the 1990s, El Anatsui developed his signature bottle cap technique, collecting bottle caps and other discarded materials from local markets and businesses that discarded them in large quantities. This cheap way of acquiring materials allowed him to experiment freely. In his own words:

Art is about play. We are more honest when we are playing. If I'm too serious, I don't think anything comes out.

The basic principles of this process have largely stayed the same since El first developed it.

First, El and his team cut open each bottle top and other bits of rubbish and flatten them out. Then, they link them together by hand using copper wire to create small, flat sections. El then constructs these sections together to make larger artworks, and when they are installed for an exhibition, he or the curators re-construct them again. The technique produces a sculpture almost like fabric, reaching back to El's father's trade as a cloth maker.

Every time El's work is exhibited, it changes. This is an integral part of his artistic approach and philosophy. Nothing is fixed. Nothing stays the same.

If art is about life, then life is not a fixed thing. The artwork should be in a form that is capable of changing.

Where does El Anatsui live and work?

El Anatsui creates his artworks with a team of people across two studios: one in Nsukka, Enugu, Nigeria and another in Tema, Ghana.

Legacies: El Anatsui’s Impact on Contemporary Art

Today, El Anatsui is considered one of the most innovative figures in contemporary art. He has greatly influenced the next generation of artists from Nigeria and beyond, and is celebrated for his contributions to African-centred art.

Kindred Viewpoints, 2016



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