The dazzling cascade of color that comprises El Anatsui’s They Are Still Coming Back, is a glittering example of the artist’s bejeweled sculptures. Belying the nature of the “found objects” that provide his raw materials, the artist transforms thousands upon thousands of discarded metal bottle caps into complex tapestries that shimmer with a kaleidoscope of color. Here, the predominant hue is gold, into which Anatsui weaves intricate passages of black, red and yellow—all colors that are symbolic to the wider African diaspora. Assembled into this monumental form, the myriad of smaller elements combine to produce a richly colored work that evokes the formal qualities of painting, without a single drop of paint having been applied.
Anatsui began his exploration of found objects over a decade ago when he came across a garbage bag overflowing with aluminum bottle caps in his native Ghana. Inspired by the opulent range of texture and color, he began to weave them together into large sheets, inspired in part by the colorful fabrics of his homeland. That he could create such beautiful objects out of what had been discarded enthused him, and led him to explore the rich aesthetic possibilities of his newly found medium.
Yet his work is so much more than purely visual, it also comments on the cultural and political too. Typically taken from local distilleries, the bottle caps speak to the main industry located in Ghana. Anatsui was not only attracted to the coloring, but also to the commercial links the industry alludes to: “When I first found the bag of bottle tops, I thought of the objects as links between Africa and Europe. European traders introduced the bottle tops, and alcohol was one of the commodities they brought with them to exchange for African goods. Eventually alcohol was used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Europeans made rum in the West Indies, took it to Liverpool, and then sent it back to Africa. For me, the bottle caps have a strong reference to the history of Africa” (E. Anatsui quoted in E. Gee, El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa, exh. cat., Museum for African Art, New York, 2011, pp. 34-35). They Are Still Coming Back combines products of both past and present industry to create a beautiful metal tapestry, connecting the individual and collective histories of Africa in its allusions to antiquity, consumption and globalization.
Belonging to a generation of African artists who came of age in the 1960s when fundamental ideological upheaval was a successor to the political independence occurring throughout Africa, Anatsui's practice is intimately connected to the impact of globalization and consumerism on the West African cultural landscape. Yet with an attachment to the found object and its connection to the human hand, Anatsui's art speaks beyond Africa, to universal truths and connections. “You've touched it, and I've touched it. There is now a kind of bond between you and me,” Anatsui explains, “and this is an idea which is very much related to religious practice, spiritual practice, in many parts of Africa and, I believe, in many cultures of the world” (E. Anatsui, quoted in L. Leffler James, “Convergence: History, Materials, and the Human Hand
- An Interview with El Anatsui,” in Art Journal, Vol. 67, No. 2, Summer 2008, p. 49).