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Ghanaian Artist El Anatsui Unveils Work at London’s Tate Modern

There’s something new hanging from Tate Modern’s ceiling. The monumental installation is the work of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui.

He’s created three sculptures for the museum’s vast Turbine Hall.

Each is made from old bottle tops that have been pressed, cut and woven together to form monumental artworks.

“This year is the eighth year of the Hyundai Commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and this year we have commissioned the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui who, with his studio, worked with over 2 million bottle tops and fragments to imagine a work in three acts for the Turbine Hall, forming expansive, free flowing sculptural forms. And they’re very much rooted in El’s interest in histories of migration, both of goods and people,” explains co-curator Dina Akhmadeeva.

The journey starts with the billowing expanse of ‘The Red Moon’, crimson on one side and yellow on the other.

This sail-like form brings to mind the ships that transported Africans and African resources across the Atlantic during the times of the slave trade.

Next are the delicate gold fragments of ‘The World’, like human figures, suspended and unsettled by their journey.

The installation finishes with the colossal ‘The Wall’, signifying the end of a voyage, the undulating ripples at its base like a rocky coastline with waves crashing ashore.

“El Anatsui came to the Turbine Hall on a number of site visits, as artists that we commission, of course, to do. And when he entered, one of the most vivid memories that I have is that he spoke of it as a ship,” says Akhmadeeva.

“And for El Anatsui the histories of migration and movement of goods and people have been absolutely embedded in the material that he works with. So the aluminium bottle top is a kind of marker of an industry that was formed on colonial trade routes that connected Europe, Africa and the Americas.”

Long-established artist

The artist is a long-established artist who has previously had solo exhibitions at La Conciergerie in Paris, Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha.

He also represented Ghana at the Venice Biennale.

“So El Anatsui is an artist of great international acclaim, he has a career spanning over five decades. He was born in Ghana and spent most of his life living and working in Nsukka in southeast Nigeria,” says Osei Bonsu, co-curator.

“He’s an artist I think who’s routinely worked with materials in a way that have certain social histories. And what he’s interested in doing quite often is using these materials to reveal something about our shared past. So actually, he’s been based in West Africa purposefully throughout his career, dealing with the kind of materials that are readily available in his environment. And that actually isn’t just a decision that one could say is economical, it’s actually about the way he thinks about art.”

Tate Modern has been attempting to widen its collections in recent years to reflect a more diverse art world that is less focused on white, European-centric works.

Bonsu says this commission goes beyond that aim, and is about putting one of the world’s greats centre stage.

“He’s built an incredibly vibrant studio space where artists are trained, where they gain opportunities, where they gain a chance to really kind of find the language. And I would say that’s what makes me especially proud to present his work here at the Turbine Hall, because it’s not just an attempt of Tate working with an African artist to signal an interest, you could say, in the representation of Black or African artists, but in one of the greatest living sculptors being presented in his rightful space,” he says.

“So I like the idea that in a way, this is a maybe an overdue recognition somewhat, but a recognition that means that generations of other artists will be inspired by El’s work and then want to learn more about many of the unsung heroes that aren’t as well-known El Anatsui.”

For the critics, the appeal of these sculptures is their intricate nature and the environmental message they send.

“When you arrive into this grand Turbine Hall, what’s striking is the texture and the beauty of those sculptures that feel like tapestries. And in fact, for me it was almost like a couture exercise, a bit of a lesson, if I may say, to the fashion world about using those tops, those leftovers from bottles and turning them into a meaningful, gigantic piece of clothes, basically,” says Eleonore Dresch, editor in chief of Culture Whisper.

Behind the Red Moon’ opens on 10 October and runs until 14 April 2024.

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