Scraps of Beauty


African Sculptor El Anatsui Reclaims His Surroundings

The mesmerizing sculptures of Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui, currently on display at the National Museum of African Art, are all made from reclaimed materials he collects or purchases for a nominal fee in Nsukka, Nigeria, where he has lived and worked for more than 30 years.

Several of his metal “cloths” are constructed with aluminum wrappings from bottle tops that once contained spirits from local distilleries, while other “woven tapestries” feature discarded tops from evaporated milk tins, rusty metal graters and old printing plates.

But for visitors expecting typical found or junk art, they should get ready for the most delightful surprise. Indeed, what is so captivating about this small exhibition in the museum’s lower level is the utter transformation that El Anatsui has achieved with his discarded metal.

In most found art, one can easily detect the bicycle wheel or the thrown-away kitchen utensil used in the sculpture. But as Anatsui himself put it, “These materials are not recycled; they are transformed.” And the resulting transformations will have viewers doing a double take — the first to stand back and marvel at El Anatsui’s large-scale sculptural wonders, and the second to examine the astounding detail as closely as the security sensors will allow. In the end, you simply won’t believe that El Anatsui’s sumptuous “cloth” is fashioned from hammered-out bottle tops — but it is.

In fact, the word “gawu” in the exhibition’s title (“El Anatsui: Gawu”) is derived from Ewe, El Anatsui’s native language, and has several possible meanings, including “metal” and “a fashioned cloak.” Thus, in one word, the artist’s medium, format and process have all been captured.

One of Africa’s leading contemporary artists, El Anatsui was first exposed to “art” as a 5-year-old fascinated by the lettering on the office doors of his school. Even though he could not yet read, he was intrigued by the graphics and form on display in such words as “headmaster.” So he copied the word — impressing the actual headmaster so much that he was given more chalk for more copying.

Today, El Anatsui is still obsessed with shapes and forms, although he embraces a wide-ranging sculptural medium that is not based on drawings as models. (He did acknowledge that among Western sculpture, he’s always appreciated Michelangelo’s “David” because “I love the pose.”)

After experimenting with a variety of media from wood to ceramics to paint, El Anatsui recently turned his attention to metallic objects, weaving together pieces such as “Crumbling Wall,” a huge three-dimensional wall made from discarded root graters. These sculptures might incorporate hundreds or even thousands of discarded metal fragments, the sections of which are joined together by copper wire — and El Anatsui won’t stop until he feels the piece is finished. “You keep working and things keep coming organically. There is no final vision,” he said in an interview before the exhibition opening.

According to El Anatsui, most of Africa does not have the technology to recycle all the materials he ends up using in his works. But his passion for found materials goes far beyond an environmental recycling effort. In fact, El Anatsui requires that all of his materials, even the cold hard metals he works with, have been exposed to some kind of human element. “Nothing from the factory — something that people have touched. When people touch something, they leave their charge on it, like an electric charge,” El Anatsui explained, noting that he feels this human energy in the materials he sculpts.

The goal is to take these materials and produce art that resonates with the natural surroundings. “It’s better if the environment is part of an artist’s work because people around him would not find his work strange,” he said. In other words, when local materials are used, “people can relate.”

His works also reflect not only the environment, but the wider cultural, social and economic identity of West Africa. For instance, the eight-foot-tall sculpture “Wastepaper Basket” is composed of discarded printing plates used for newspaper obituary pages. “Adinkra Sasa,” meanwhile, is an enormous “textile” reminiscent of the Ghanaian textiles worn at funerals.

But there is an undeniable political undertone in these works as well. El Anatsui’s beautiful sculptures provide their own commentary on globalization, consumerism and waste in Africa and beyond. Despite his worldwide recognition, El Anatsui continues to live and work in a small Nigerian village and teach at the nearby university, where he enlists his students as assistants to hammer out materials and assemble the sections for his sculptures. “Each student is given a job to do,” he noted.

Perhaps these students are learning more than just El Anatsui’s incredible sculpting techniques. Perhaps they are also learning about their environment, culture and history — all by reclaiming what they’ve essentially discarded. And perhaps through these stunning sculptures, the rest of us will learn to take a second look at the things we’ve discarded from our lives and from our imaginations.

El Anatsui: Gawu through Sept. 7 National Museum of African Art 950 Independence Ave., SW For more information, please call (202) 633-4600 or visit

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.