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El Anatsui was born in 1944 in Anyako, Ghana. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Sculpture and a Postgraduate Diploma in Art Education from the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, he became Professor of Sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he taught from 1975 until his retirement in 2008. Anatsui’s work has always been clearly and directly linked to traditional African art. His first sculptures were made of wood, carved and painted to resemble artifacts commonly found in African centers and marketplaces. In the late 1990s he began to work with the rigid materials for which his art is best known today: liquor bottle tops and metal foil from bottlenecks woven together with stiff copper wire to create large sculptural works. This change in materials, as well as in method and practice, has solidified Anatsui’s work as part of a twenty-first-century postmodern tradition, while simultaneously anchoring it within the tradition of his native culture.
Combining traditional African history and culture as well as Western art practices, Anatsui draws on his environment, both natural and manmade, as a source of material and inspiration. The liquor bottle tops and metal foil with which he begins his sculptures are transformed into shimmering, seemingly soft and pliant cloth-like structures resembling tapestries. The contrast between the coarseness of the individual elements that comprise his work and the striking final result implies an attention to contemporary political and social issues of transcendence, waste, recycling, and consumption. At the same time, the works are full of references to African cultural traditions such as weaving, Ghanaian kente cloth, and adinkra.
Anatsui exhibited in the Venice Biennale (1990 and 2007) and was included in the Johannesburg Biennale in 1995 as well as the Gwanju Bienniale in South Korea in 2004. He was included in the anthology exhibition Africa Remix, which toured Düsseldorf, London, Paris, Tokyo, and other cities in 2006–7. His work is in numerous public and private collections including the British Museum, Centre Georges Pompidou, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum Kunst Palast, Nigeria National Art Gallery, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian Institution. A retrospective of Anatsui's work, organized by the Museum for African Art, currently is touring in the United States.