Artist to Know: El Anatsui

Liz Catalano
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Custom 2020 Print Comes to Auction With Phillips

In 1998, El Anatsui stumbled across the material that later defined his art. He happened to pick up a garbage bag full of liquor bottle caps along the side of the road. The caps sat idly in his studio for months while Anatsui grappled with wood sculptures. Eventually, Anatsui realized the possibilities of those small metal bits. He began weaving elaborate sculptures with the bottle caps that resemble quilts or pieces of cloth. Anatsui’s works contain a glinting beauty but also statements about consumption, colonialism, and the environment.

“I think that when humans touch something, they leave a charge,” El Anatsui told The San Diego Union-Tribune about his work in 2015. “They leave an energy on it, and that energy goes along with it.” Anatsui seeks to harness that energy in his freeform sculptures. 

A hand-sculpted inkjet print on aluminum from El Anatsui will come to auction in Phillips’ upcoming Editions & Works on Paper sale. Bidding will start on April 20th at 4:00 PM EDT. Get to know the artist before the event begins.

El Anatsui with one of his works at the Royal Ontario Museum. Image courtesy of Moe Doiron/ The Globe and Mail.
El Anatsui with one of his works at the Royal Ontario Museum. Image courtesy of Moe Doiron/ The Globe and Mail.

Born in the Volta Region of Ghana, El Anatsui grew up the youngest of 32 children. Anatsui’s father was a master Kente cloth weaver who instilled a love of traditional Ghanaian crafts in the artist. However, the young Anatsui had few role models to follow. “Growing up in rural Ghana, there was nothing like a museum or art gallery,” he wrote for The Guardian in 2020. “When people heard I was going to study art, they wondered what precisely I would do when I finished.” 

Anatsui later made his way to the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi to earn degrees in sculpture and art education. He soon accepted a teaching job at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). Anatsui taught there for the next 36 years. While at UNN, Anatsui fell in with the emerging Nsukka Group of contemporary artists. This group worked to bring traditional Igbo Uli designs into the mainstream art world. Anatsui felt moved by this work and revisited his own Ghanaian roots for inspiration. He experimented with mediums through the 1960s and 70s, turning from wood to clay to found objects. Around the turn of the millennium, Anatsui discovered the potential of bottle caps. 

The caps hold particular resonance for the artist. He is careful in their handling, conscious of the deep connections between liquor imports and the triangular slave trade. Anatsui also explores current patterns in consumption, noting the European brands that stock West African liquor shelves.

El Anatsui sculptures at the Venice Biennale in 2007. Image courtesy of Chester Higgins Jr. for The New York Times.
El Anatsui sculptures at the Venice Biennale in 2007. Image courtesy of Chester Higgins Jr. for The New York Times.

Anatsui’s art regularly appears at international venues. He participated in the 1990 and 2007 editions of the Venice Biennale and has enjoyed numerous traveling exhibitions. Before his bottle cap sculptures appear in public, though, they start on the floor of his Nsukka studio. Anatsui crafts each sculpture without sketches or plans. He sometimes rearranges the folded and flattened bottle caps by hand or directs a team of assistants with a laser pointer.

The upcoming Phillips auction will highlight one of Anatsui’s hand-designed prints. Benefit Print Project produced the work, titled Gold Band, in 2020. The signed proof is a UV-cured acrylic resin inkjet print on aluminum. It has all the colors of Anatsui’s bottle cap sculptures with a smoother texture. Phillips will offer the piece with an estimate of USD 40,000 to $60,000.

El Anatsui, Gold Band, 2020. Image from Phillips.
El Anatsui, Gold Band, 2020. Image from Phillips.

While Anatsui was always well-known among Nigerian collectors, his international popularity exploded in the early 2000s. According to Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, a Nigerian art collector, Anatsui was also one of the first African artists to sell his works at competitive “international” prices. “Prior to him, there were always discounts,” Aig-Imoukhuede told The New Yorker

Several of Anatsui’s bottle cap “cloths” have appeared at auction in recent years. One piece, titled Recycled Dreams (Uniting the World with a Stitch), achieved $1,512,500 at Christie’s in 2018. Vumedi, a bottle cap and copper wire sculpture, notably sold at Sotheby’s for GBP 1,043,500 (USD 1,438,000) in late 2020. With an area of approximately 130 square feet, Vumedi is one of the largest Anatsui artworks to enter the private market. His smallest pieces tend to sell for between $10,000 and $50,000. The work available with Phillips this April is among the artist’s first aluminum prints to hit the auction block.

El Anatsui, Vumedi, 2005. Image from Sotheby’s.
El Anatsui, Vumedi, 2005. Image from Sotheby’s.

Anatsui retired from UNN in 2011 to focus on his art. He currently splits his time between Nsukka and his native Ghana. Though the COVID-19 pandemic derailed his art production and exhibition plans last year, Anatsui took the changes in stride. “Life is a way of one being shuffled,” he said in a 2021 interview. “And I’ve always wanted my work to be about life.”

El Anatsui’s Gold Band print will come to auction with Phillips in the upcoming Editions & Works on Paper sale, which runs from April 20th to April 22nd, 2021. Bidding will close for this piece during the Evening Sale, held at 4:00 PM on April 20th. To place a bid and browse the catalog, visit Phillips.  

Auction Daily regularly profiles contemporary artists who are making waves. Check out our coverage of rising digital artist Michah Dowbak, also known as Mad Dog Jones. 

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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