Funds from native arts acquisition fund, U.S. Bank, Richard and Theresa Davis, Douglas Society, Denver Art Museum Volunteer Endowment, Alex Cranberg and Susan Morris, Geta and Janice Asfaw, Saron and Daniel Yohannes, Lee McIntire, Milroy and Sheryl Alexander, Dorothy and Richard Campbell, Wayne Carey and Olivia Thompson, Morris Clark, Rebecca H. Cordes, Kenneth and Rebecca Gart, Tim and Bobbi Hamill, Kalleen and Robert Malone, Meyer and Geri Saltzman, Ann and Gerry Saul, Mary Ellen and Thomas Williams, Nancy and James Williams, Forrest Cason, First Western Trust Bank, Howard and Sandy Gelt, Gene Osborne, Boettcher Foundation, John and Eve Glesne, The Schlegel White Foundation, Jeffrey and Nancy Balter, and Tamara Banks, 2008.891
El Anatsui [ah-nat-SOO-ee] was born 1944 in Anyako, Ghana—the youngest, he says, of his father’s 32 children. His mother died when he was quite young, and he was raised by an uncle in a Presbyterian mission. As was common in pre-Independent Ghana, school curriculum, and art school curriculum in particular, were almost entirely Western. Anatsui says this left him feeling restless and rootless and he began looking for ‘‘something that had more relationship to me, as someone growing up in an African country.’’
Anatsui is known for creating art out of found materials such as driftwood, clay, paper, and liquor-bottle tops. He draws on a combination of African aesthetic traditions as well as Western Art history. Plans for this specific work began sometime in 2006, when Curator of Native Arts Nancy Blomberg, along with then Curator of African Art Moyo Okediji, commissioned El Anatsui to create something specifically for the Denver Art Museum. To create his “metal cloths,” Anatsui enlists the help of skilled assistants who work with him in his studio cutting, flattening, and shaping metal liquor bottle tops into design blocks conceived by the artist. Anatsui carefully arranges the different elements on the floor of his studio and, once he is satisfied with the design, his assistants use copper wire to stitch the individual pieces together. Anatsui acknowledges the input of his assistants, noting that the “variety which is needed at this scale comes from the style and the feel of each individual hand.”
Anatsui is currently a Professor of Sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he has lectured since 1975. His work appears in numerous international and American art museums, including The British Museum in London, Le Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
What Inspired It?
“Art grows out of each particular situation and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up.”
While out one day, Anatsui came across a bag of liquor bottle tops that were sitting in a bush. He took them back to his studio thinking that he might be able to use them at some point. “I kept the bottle caps in the studio for several months until the idea eventually came to me that by stitching them together I could get them to articulate some statement,” says Anatsui. As the metal pieces were stitched together, he noticed that his artworks began to resemble fabric cloths. “Incidentally too, the colours of the caps seemed to replicate those of traditional kente cloths” (a West African weaving tradition).
While it would be easy to suggest that Anatsui is recycling materials in his artworks, he doesn’t see it that way. Rather, he describes his use of found materials as a “transformation” of those materials. For Anatsui, the inclusion of bottle caps suggests a link between European and African histories: “To me, the bottle tops encapsulate the essence of the alcoholic drinks which were brought to Africa by Europeans as trade items at the time of the earliest contact between the two peoples.”
When creating Rain Has No Father?, El Anatsui was inspired by the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. The silver cloth is perforated with slashing vertical elements symbolizing “the rain which gives way to life forms.” The three multicolored blocks spread across the top are formed from hundreds of pieces of metal carefully made into tiny open squares—perhaps suggesting clouds holding masses of rain droplets about to be released.
Things to Look For
Each bottle top, once flattened, is about 4 inches long and 1 inch wide. Gina Laurin, DAM conservator, who worked on repairing the artwork before it was hung, estimates that 9,000 bottle tops were used to make this particular piece. Given the number of artworks Anatsui has created in the last several years, it is currently hard to find used tops. He now goes straight to the distillery to acquire the bottle caps, making newer shinier works.
Anatsui uses copper wire to hold each piece of aluminum in place. “The process of stitching, especially the repetitive aspect, slows down action and I believe makes thinking deeper,” says Anatsui. “It’s like the effect of a good mantra on the mind.”
The folds are created in the act of hanging the piece. Anatsui prefers museums to install the metal cloths and create folds. Rain Has no Father? arrived at the museum folded up inside a box. Curator Nancy Blomberg began experimenting with small prototypes—digital images on canvas, 8 ½ x 11 inches—to figure out how the piece would be hung in the gallery. While this was helpful, it was during installation that final decisions on how to best display the work of art were made. The curatorial, installation, and conservation staffs helped to devise a system of pulleys that allowed the DAM to hang the piece safely, as well as manipulate it to create the necessary folds. Installation crews spent a day hanging the work.
The surface of this piece is not solid. Light passes through, creating a shadow on the back wall.
Each lesson plan includes high-quality image and information about the art.
Early Childhood (ages 3–5)
Children will explore the movement and texture of fabric and other materials through hands-on group and individual activities. They will then make an all-class fabric “sculpture” and share their creation with others through pictures.
When discussing his artwork, El Anatsui talks about transformation and fluidity, and how they replicate life. Students will examine Rain Has No Father?, paying special attention to the folds and malleability of the artwork. The class will use Anatsui's quote, "Human relations are not fixed…they change from time to time; they are dynamic," to spark discussion and inspire personal writing topics.
The class will use Rain Has No Father? to examine how the artist, El Anatsui, uses found items from his community to create artwork both rooted in and representative of his community. Students will then work in small groups to create and present pieces of artwork that represent their understanding of "American" culture and history, using found items from the school and/or surrounding community.
Students will collect and transform found materials into a work of art. Through the process they will learn about El Anatsui and his work, as well as explore the difference between two- and three-dimensional art.
Students will work in groups to research the area surrounding where they live in terms of geography, topography, human and physical features, infrastructure, and more. The group will use materials readily found in their environment to present an informative and artistic presentation of their findings.
Students will learn about El Anatsui and his work, and will mimic his process of collecting and transforming found materials into a work of art. They will work as a team to create a found object “tapestry” and write a story about their creative process.
Bring in a sheet or blanket and have the students work as a group to explore different ways to hang it. Let them experiment with different pulley systems to create unique folds in the fabric.
El Anatsui takes a hard material, metal bottle tops, and makes it look very fluid and delicate. Discuss this transformation with the students. What are some other ways you can transform a material and make it appear as something completely different?
For Anatsui, the inclusion of bottle caps suggests a link between European and African histories: “To me, the bottle tops encapsulate the essence of the alcoholic drinks which were brought to Africa by Europeans as trade items at the time of the earliest contact between the two peoples.” Have students research trade routes and the exchange of goods, ideas, and beliefs among various countries’ histories.
The shadow created by Rain Has No Father? is an important part of the piece that Anatsui didn’t create in his studio or with bottle tops. Not all Anatsui pieces are hung so they create a shadow. The DAM’s is unusual because of the slanted wall. Discuss with students how sometimes projects can create un-planned for results.
Find Out More
El Anatsui: Studio Process
In this short clip from PBS' Art21, El Anatsui talks about his studio and provides insight into some of his working process. Check out the full episode of Art21, Change, featuring El Anatsui and other artists.
Interview with El Anatsui
In this video from the Clark Art Institute, El Anatsui discusses the installation of his work at Stone Hill Center with the Clark's curatorial team.
Installing Rain Has No Father? at the Denver Art Museum
DAM Curator of Native Arts and Head Curator Nancy Blomberg demonstrates how she manipulated models of El Anatsui's Rain Has No Father to decide how to hang the piece in the museum.
El Anatsui Installing "Between Earth and Heaven"
El Anatsui installing a piece at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This page is part of the website for Embrace!, a contemporary art exhibition held at the Denver Art Museum from November 17 - April 4, 2010, and features installation photos as well as additional information about El Anatsui. The exhibition featured works created in response to the unique architecture of the Denver Art Museum's Frederic C. Hamilton Building.
Article published by the Washington Post about El Anatsui's piece, Crumbling Wall.
Spring, Chris. Angaza Africa: African Art Now. London: Laurence King Publishers, 2008.
This book illustrates the diversity and vitality of contemporary African artists around the world.
This Website is generously funded by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, The Virginia Hill Charitable Foundation, Colorado Creative Industries and the National Endowment for the Arts, Xcel Energy Foundation, the Anna and John J. Sie Foundation, and The Japan Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.