El Anatsui (b. 1944)
aluminum and copper wire
63 1/2 x 65 in. (161.2 x 165.1 cm.)
Executed in 2013. This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

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Alexander Berggruen
Alexander Berggruen

Lot Essay

"When I set out to do work, I want something that would arrest people at least, draw them closer, so they can decide for themselves whether it's really beautiful." – El Anatsui

At more than five square feet of shimmering, undulating, sculptural material blocked into textural swaths of vivid color, El Anatsui’s Exoke is mesmerizing. The visually and conceptually rich work is one of the Ghana-born, Nigeria-based artist’s celebrated “hangings,” a unique hybrid of tapestry, sculpture, and painting. As rare examples of sumptuous work with a critical slant, El Anatsui’s hangings masterfully interweave bottle caps in order to examine the remnants of globalization, consumerism, colonialism, and post-colonialism in West Africa. It is works like Exoke that have cemented the artist’s international status and become his undeniable hallmark.

While the luminous Exoke appears to be bejeweled at a distance, at close-range it reveals itself to be composed of the gleaming bottle caps that seal inexpensive African liquors. Anatsui salvaged these used metallic caps around his adopted Nsukka, carefully selecting them for their hues of red, yellow, black—three colors symbolic to the African Diaspora—as well as aluminum silver, which offsets the color scheme. Anatsui and his studio painstakingly flattened, twisted, crushed, and hammered the caps into the desired forms, shaping them into shifting blocks of rich color as he threaded them together with copper wire. Parts of the resultant sculpture resemble kente, the traditional strip-woven ceremonial fabric made by the Asante and Ewe peoples of Ghana including the artist’s own father, a master weaver. Exoke has additional Ghanaian resonances in that bottle manufacturing is a major national industry there.

A word from the artist’s native language, Ewe, “exoke” translates to “It has gotten root.” While the present work’s title intentionally leaves space for interpretation, it also alludes to the contentious origins of these castoff caps. As the artist has explained: “I researched the history of how these beverages came to Africa and found that they were brought by European traders, who exchanged them for various goods, and eventually even for slaves, who were taken to the Americas. The slaves probably worked on farms producing cane sugar, which in turn was used to make the drinks that were exported to Europe and brought back to Africa… In a sense, these bottles represent a link between the people of Africa, Europe, and America” (E. Anatsui quoted in "Interview with J. Kalsi," Gulf News, 20 June 2013). Interestingly, Anatsui’s hangings have a sense of liquidity and mobility of their own. The artist encourages the owners and curators of his hangings to bend and drape the sculptures as they please, a choice that renders the works flexible and reconfigurable and open to almost limitless interpretation.

Now a major figure in the world of contemporary art, El Anatsui was living and teaching in Nsukka, Nigeria when in 1995 he had his first solo show in London. Since then, his work has been shown extensively worldwide and collected by major public institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the British Museum in London, the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. He was also the subject of a critically acclaimed retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013 and won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

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