Excerpted from Intelligent Life Magazine, reported by Paula Weideger.
Many African artists prefer to work with materials found near to hand. But just why were there thousands of bottle tops on Anatsui’s doorstep? The answer has to do with recycling. Drinkers return empty gin and whisky bottles to their local distiller, where they are refilled and given new caps. There is a keen market for the cast-offs. Melted down, they are transformed into cooking pots. Thirst being what it is, Anatsui has no trouble buying what he needs.
Some 20 men work on the hangings. They sit on the floor or hunch over tables in a large, open-plan studio. The round tops are cut out, the remaining aluminium is made into strips. Each element is pounded flat and pierced. Round ones are threaded together with round ones, strips with strips. Anatsui tells his crew what colour combinations he wants. These are then put together in sections, or units as he calls them. A unit might be two feet square or smaller.
“Working with the rings that hold the caps—that is very, very slow,” Anatsui says. “A few inches in a day. But when you work with the shaft of the cap that is very fast, because the basic unit is big.” Although he used to make preparatory drawings for his wood sculpture, he does no drawings for these pieces. “Now, I place things on the floor and move them around,” he says. “When I like where it is, it gets linked up. There are a lot of permutations all along the route.”
As the tapestry takes shape it begins to look like a giant jigsaw. But there is no pre-existing image. Even the artist may not know exactly what he’s looking for until it comes into existence on the studio floor.