El Anatsui, “Versatility,” 2006. Metal, 497 x 375 cm. (Courtesy: Fowler Museum at UCLA. Museum purchase with Funds Provided by the Jerome L. Joss Endowment Fund, Jay and Deborah Last, Barbara and Joseph Goldenberg, Dena and Louis Marienthal, and an Anonymous Donor).

The artist, El Anatsui, a seventy-six-year-old Ghanaian sculptor based in Nigeria, has works in two fall exhibitions this year. At the Joburg Art Fair in Johannesburg, El Anatsui’s piece, “Drying Line,” was shown. The metal tapestry depicts brightly-striped cloths hung from crisscrossed lines against a white sky. The work flashes glints of humor in portraying fabric on a quilt. The colorful insets quote the kente cloth his father wove in his country of birth, Ghana.

El Anatsui, “Drying Line,” 2021. Aluminum, copper wire and nylon string, 415 x 657 cm. (Courtesy: Goodman Gallery).

At The Church in Sag Harbor, NY, the exhibition, “Threading the Needle,” included his work “Telesma.” The Greek word means toll or tax; it also suggests a talisman, an amulet carried through a moment of transformation, or a toll taken by spirits for a dangerous passage. The work sent from Ghana to the US traces the Middle Passage. Part of the artwork is ripped and left on the ground, and next to it hangs a straw hat, suggesting the rent cloth of mourning and tokens left behind by those gone.

El Anatsui stitches thousands of discarded liquor seals into massive fabrics. To hang his large tapestries, a crew assembles the pieces, which fall each time in new ways. He said that the name of one monumental work, “Versatility,” refers to the adaptations African culture has made in the shifting winds of history. 

El Anatsui’s creations challenge an elitist value system in which quilts are disdained as cheap works of labor. Their ripped metal edges and copper thread would slice a sleeper to ribbons—a comforter that gives no comfort but says, “Wake up.” 

Nigeria has the highest alcohol consumption of any country in Africa. The nation produces much of the liquor for the continent. The brand names visible on these strips summon a history of colonial privilege, violence, and enslavement: Dark Sailor, Liquor Headmaster, Black Gold, Chairman, 007. One 2016 work using liquor labels mocks their grandiose names with the title, “Flimsy Excuse.”

How many broken lives do these huge quilts represent? The colorful metal seals herald a private pleasure but hint at secret suffering. A 2014 assemblage of liquor detritus is named “Tissue, Membrane, Skin, Blood.”

El Anatsui, “National Identity Card,” 2021. Painted wood, 177 × 225 cm. (Courtesy: Goodman Gallery).

A small cadre of men stitches these artworks from the trash. The needles used to pierce the metal skin hint at deadlier addictions. Meth use is growing in Africa and in Nigeria most of all.

El Anatsui’s art dovetails with work by the New York City artist David Hammons. Their birthdates are a few months apart, and they’ve exhibited together at international events. Hammons’s ripped and filthy quilts reflected New York City’s frayed social fabric. In an exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery, beside his work titled “Orange is the New Black,” Hammons hung orange fabric over a dark painting. He draped other canvases with torn black plastic bags like those the homeless use to shelter from rough weather. Other Hammons works are studded, like some of El Anatsui’s, with bottlecaps. His “Night Train” is a wheel made of liquor bottles, a circle that will take you nowhere.

El Anatsui’s artwork reflects the complexity of African culture. It’s monolithic and challenging; “Elephant in the Room” is the name of a recent piece. His art takes traces of many people, families, countries, and histories—some obscured, some discarded, some twisted—but intertwined.