African Art

5 Things to Know About El Anatsui’s Turbine Hall Commission at Tate Modern

Natalia Tiberio 2 November 2023 min Read

On October 10th, the doors of Tate Modern in London swung open, unveiling a long-awaited exhibition: the annual Turbine Hall Hyundai Commission. The vast space was transformed into a breathtaking mosaic of gold-yellow, red, and black, resembling an enormous patchwork quilt. From a distance, it appeared as an intricately embroidered masterpiece, but a closer look revealed its true nature – an awe-inspiring creation composed of countless metal bottle caps. This is the distinctive hallmark of El Anatsui, the renowned Ghanaian artist chosen for this year’s prestigious commission.

Whether you’re planning to experience this installation firsthand or are simply curious about El Anatsui’s Behind the Red Moon, here are five essential insights to enhance your appreciation of this remarkable display.

1. The Man Behind the Art

El Anatsui was born in 1944 in Anyako, Ghana but spent a great part of his career working in Nsukka, Nigeria. He studied art at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi and along with his art practice, he joined the University of Nigeria as a professor of sculpture. 

During the 1970s Anatsui became involved with the Nsukka Group, a collective of artists interested in incorporating traditional Igbo design and symbols into contemporary art. Their mediums varied from ink, print, and textile to sculpture. The group played an important role in Western African art, using the abstract qualities of ancient motifs in new and unexpected ways.

El Anatsui Turbine Hall: El Anatsui’s portrait, 2019. Photo: Aliona Adrianova, October Gallery, London, UK.

El Anatsui’s portrait, 2019. Photo: Aliona Adrianova, October Gallery, London, UK.

2. Use of Discarded Objects

In his 50-year-long career dedicated to sculpture, El Anatsui has worked with wood, ceramics, and metal. With a preference for materials sourced locally, he repurposes used, broken, or discarded objects, emphasizing their transformation from purely functional items to contemplation pieces.

The artist’s philosophy of always working with what’s around him and cheap, widely available materials led to experimentation with parts of metal tins. His famous use of liquor bottle caps goes back to the late 1990s when he found a bag filled with them lying around his studio. Anatsui then started to sew the flattened caps together with copper wire, creating sheets of lightweight, colorful, and malleable metal.

For the Turbine Hall installation, these immense panels of metal hang from the ceiling, forming abstract compositions that change according to light and offering a dazzling experience for visitors.


3. Constant Change

A striking characteristic of El Anatsui’s pieces is their changeable nature. Both his choice of materials and the finished work highlight transformation. He doesn’t give museums and galleries instructions on how to hang or display his work, thus facilitating a multitude of possibilities. He proposes flexible configurations as an opposition to the fixed, rigid state of traditional sculpture. 

With the same cloth-like flexibility, Anatsui plays with tri-dimensionality, creating folds and pleats into the metal fabric. The very resemblance of these textile-like weaves of metal bottle caps is unintentionally a nod to the tradition of Ghanaian kente cloth, which his father was a master weaver of. In a unique way, the artist continues the tradition.


4. Urgent Topics

Through sophisticated combinations of color and pattern, El Anatsui brings attention to themes such as ancestry, environment, colonization, and migration

For example, the bottle caps symbolize the slave trade for sugar plantations in the Americas during colonial times. They share the history of how Europeans enslaved Africans to harvest sugar in the Americas. That sugar was then used to produce liquor, which ended up being sold back in African countries.

In the Turbine Hall installation, this connection gains an additional layer of meaning, given that Henry Tate, one of the founders of the museum, owned the sugar company Tate & Lyle, whose products were sold in Ghana when El Anatsui was a child.

Furthermore, the reuse of discarded materials opens discussions about environmental and over-consumption issues.

El Anatsui Turbine Hall: El Anatsui, Tiled Flower Garden, 2012. Photo: Jack Shainman.

El Anatsui, Tiled Flower Garden, 2012. Photo: Jack Shainman.

5. El Anastui as one of the Leading Contemporary Artists Worldwide

The prestigious Turbine Hall Commission is one of many milestones in El Anatsui’s career. His work is part of major collections including MOMA, Centre Pompidou, and The British Museum. His installations have also shown in biennials around the world including Venice, São Paulo, and Senegal.  In 2015, Anatsui was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement by the 56th Venice Biennale and in 2017, the Praemium Imperiale Award for Sculpture by The Japan Art Association.

Behind the Red Moon remains on view at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall until 14 April 2024. 

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