'New World Map' twice signed and dated 'EL 09-10' (lower right); further signed and dated 'EL 09' (lower right) aluminium bottle caps and copper wire 340 x 500cm (133 7/8 x 196 7/8in).
EXHIBITED: Dubai, Mojo Gallery, As it is! Contemporary Art from Africa and the Diaspora, December 2010 - March 2011
"I thought of the objects as links between my continent, Africa, and the rest of Europe. Objects such as these were introduced to Africa by Europeans when they came as traders. Alcohol was one of the commodities brought with them to exchange for goods in Africa...I thought that the bottle caps had a strong reference to the history of Africa."
El Anatsui has charted the history of Africa in his sculptural practice throughout his long and prolific career. This history is most evident in his metal wall sculptures made of West African liquor bottle tops. The topographical metal sculptures connect individual and collective histories of the continent in their reference to consumption, globalization, and cosmopolitanism.
Born in 1944 El Anatsui's formative years were spent near the Atlantic Ocean with family and neighbors working and living off the shoreline of Keta Lagoon. In 1975 he moved to inland Nigeria where he would hold a teaching position at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for thirty-seven years before retiring in 2011. Peaceful quiet village life gave way to a more raucous academic community; these two affectations are made visible in his artistic practice through stylistic variations in production.
He began to seriously use found material in 2001 by flattening and connecting each bottle top with copper wire to form large sheets meant to hang vertically. In the last decade, Anatsui's technique developed dramatically through the reformation of individual tops; a practice that allows for extraordinary variation in pattern, color, and shape. Early works were comprised solely of flattened metal while later sculptures incorporated a vast array of tops altered to form intricate triangular, rectangular, circular and square patterns.
By 2009 Anatsui was twisting and folding pieces into a variety of shapes in order to form patterns that populate each overall sculpture. These lacy, busy sections construct a road map through the materiality of life in Africa and the world. As the variety of techniques grew, so too did the scale of Anatsui's sculptures. 2009 was the advent of Anatsui's monumental style as evidenced in the two works included in the massive space of the Arsenale at the Venice Biennale as well as in other significant sculptures such as New World Map. Works from this seminal period in the artist's career stretched to fill interior spaces and began to engulf the architectural exterior of historical buildings such as the Palazzo Fortuny in Italy and Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie.
In New World Map we see the confluence of Anatsui's concern with world history and the future of international relations with the individual experience of everyday life. He has literally redrawn the continents to connect societies that fused historically in the colonial period yet developed as a patchwork in their modern-day existence. Peoples that were once disparate are tied by the metallic connective tissue in Anatsui's sculpture.
A fugue of color and pattern converge in the right hand side of New World Map. The dense, muted section of chainmail pattern abuts a jittery storm of blue, red, white, and yellow. A lone island floats off the bottom of the sculpture distancing itself from the cacophony of the giant mass of lands. All movement is surrounded by a sea of shimmering gold. A singular longitudinal line enters the geographic sphere on the left, subtly framing the quiet waters that threaten to be overtaken by the new world order.
The entropic nature of material is elevated to place of reverence in El Anatsui's metal wall sculptures. Shimmering folds and hanging pouches of drink tops simultaneously replicate the gravity of lightness, the malleability of rigidity, and the shifting shapes of the world as we know it. As our global map of reference continues to change, El Anatsui's poignant sculptures will help us find our way home.
We are grateful to Dr Lisa Binder of the Museum for African Art in New York for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.