El Anatsui is known for his wood and clay sculptures and his complex assemblages from recycled materials. In the late 1970s, he gave precedence to using glass shards and pieces of broken ceramic (Broken Pots series, 1976-1982). Two decades later, he shaped his first pieces of “fabric” from “poor materials”.
El Anatsui's monumental wall installations (Sasa (Coat), 2004, Coll. MNAM-CCI, Centre Pompidou), along with his floor sculptures (Tiled flower garden, 2012; AG + BA, 2014) are made from “scrap materials”: aluminium bottle tops, crushed, flattened cans or cut-up sheets of metal. The artist carefully gathers these materials together to bind them with copper wire. The pieces are first put together on the ground, then fixed to the wall. Their supple, irregular forms are reminiscent of curtains, tapestries and clothing (Man’s Cloth, Woman’s Cloth, 2002). The sparkling, brightly coloured works are modelled on the large kente cloths with symbolic motifs, worn by Ghanaian chiefs.
Like stage curtains or precious tapestries, his metal wall works have graced many a prestigious facade, from the Palazzo Fortuny for the 52nd Venice Biennale (Fresh and Fading Memories, 2007), to the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin (Old National Gallery) (Ozone Layer and Yam Mounds, 2010), stopping off at the Palais Galliera in Paris (Broken Bridge, 2012) and Royal Academy in London (TSIATSIA – searching for connection, 2013) along the way. He recently adorned the High Line, an elevated section of a disused New York Central Railroad spur, now a linear park, with a “wall” of metal and mirrors (Broken Bridge II, 2012-2013).
El Anatsui is inspired by the African traditions of recycling and finding new uses for old manufactured objects, and he has skillfully turned rubbish recovery into the mainspring of the creative process. His works reflect upon global trade and the destruction and transformation of materials - symbols of the events faced by the African continent.