El Anatsui is known worldwide for his shimmering wall hangings composed of aluminum liquor bottle caps, copper wire and other discarded materials. His artworks, which also include relief sculptures of burnt wood and constructions from metal printing plates and roofing sheets, embody a wide array of artistic techniques, aesthetic traditions and layers of cultural meaning. ‘Dzesi II’ is made of liquor bottle caps, which recall the alcohol brought by Europeans to trade for slaves and other commodities. They also speak to the high consumption of alcohol in the artist’s community and its social costs. To construct the work, El Anatsui and his assistants flattened the caps and joined them with wire. As in Ghanaian kente cloth, narrow strips are made and assembled to form vast patterns. Dzesi means “sign” or “identity” in the language of Anatsui’s people, the Ewe, and the concentric circles are an Asante symbol for “king.” Because of its scale, ‘Dzesi II’ also suggests American abstract painting from the 1960s and 1970s.
“Art grows out of each particular situation and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up,” said African sculptor El Anatsui. For El Anatsui, that has long meant transforming common materials found in the city, nearby villages and countryside around his studio into art. He has used natural materials including wood and clay, but much of his work incorporates manmade items from local craft products used in daily life (trays, mortars and ceramic pots) to industrially-produced objects (discarded liquor-bottle caps and printing plates). Working with his environment also means, to El Anatsui, incorporating aspects of the artistic traditions and history of Ghana, where he was born and raised, and of Nigeria, where he has lived and taught for over 30 years.
Dzesi II is one of El Anatsui’s “cloths,” which are made of used aluminum liquor-bottle caps. There are a number of breweries and distilleries near Nsukka, where the artist lives. “The whole process started when I discovered piles of empty drink bottles that had been thrown away,” said the artist. He flattens the liquor-bottle caps, then “sews” them together by threading copper wire through tiny holes punched in the metal. He works with assistants because it is “a terribly laborious process. In a day you are talking about maybe half a square foot.”
As in the production of kente cloth – a traditional West African art form produced by men, including the artist’s father and brothers – smaller panels are produced, then joined together to form vast, exquisite patterns. The muted golden harmonies of Dzesi II may not evoke Asante kente, the best known, which employs bright primary hues and sharp color contrasts. “My father wove Ewe [an ethnic group in Ghana, Benin and Togo] kente – as a hobby,” reminisced El Anatsui. “A typical Ewe kente one is able to distinguish because of its muted harmonies mostly of secondary hues.” Dzesi II is not as flat or malleable as cloth, yet it does have a three-dimensional aspect, flexibility and even a degree of transparency. It occupies the intersection between painting and sculpture.
Its main motif, target-like concentric circles, may derive from uli, traditional Igbo (one of Nigeria’s three major cultures) designs or symbol systems or scripts from other African peoples. Uli patterns and symbols were historically painted by women on their bodies as decoration and on the walls of houses and shrines. El Anatsui combines a reverence for tradition with an inferred comment on a stark reality of modern African life: the high rate of alcohol consumption and its social cost. His work often indirectly addresses Euro/American exploitation and destruction of African resources and culture. The artist’s concern with industrial society’s consumption of natural resources and the garbage it leaves behind may also be inferred from Dzesi II. Political commentary bubbles beneath the formal beauty of much of El Anatsui’s work.