Alte Nationalgalerie © SMB, Photo: Jens Ziehe
"If there were a direct link between the bottle caps and textile cloth it would be that they bear names referring to incidents, persons, to historic or current themes."
As part of the project Who Knows Tomorrow El Anatsui shows Ozone Layer and Yam Mounds (2010) a large, site-specific sculpture in the columned vestibule of the Alte Nationalgalerie that is reminiscent of a tapestry. It is mounted directly under the mighty pediment, the cornice of which bears the golden inscription DER DEUTSCHEN KUNST MDCCCLXXI. With his extremely precious-looking, very light and yet gigantic curtain-like aluminum sculpture, El Anatsui shows an artwork that inscribes an additional story onto this temple-like structure with its great national, virtually "holy” meaning. The work's incredible dimensions, the edifice's monumentality and the implicit range of colonization are presented to the public. The sculpture is knotted together like a net and, thanks to its fabrication technique, contains a metaphor, according to which past and present belong together. This makes clear that we cannot put aside our responsibility for the colonial history. Therefore, the historic discourse about issues pertaining to the presence of German and non-German art in the Nationalgalerie is relevant. It appears that El Anatsui's work under the golden letters not only provokes said discourse but it raises its level to the perception of the reality of our cultural and economic networks and focuses on the African memory.
El Anatsui's work is characterised by the combination of Pan-African and Western elements. Two particular influences on the artist's work are his distinctly Ghanaian identity and the modern Uli style of painting of the Nigerian Nsukka Group, whom he encountered at the University of Nigeria.
After a series of early works, in which he used traditional techniques to transform clay and wood into objects that took up the entire exhibition space, since 2004 he has gone on to create sculptures made of recycled material, usually several metres in height. Assembled from vast quantities of tin can parts and bottle tops, hammered flat and bound together to form expansive textiles, these sculptures are reminiscent of sumptuous drapes made from vibrant African fabrics. Besides Africa's textile industry, their individual components also evoke the influence of the global market, in particular that of the former colonial powers. Anatsui's works thus become statements on the history and culture of the African continent as a whole and the impact of international economic forces. In the recontextualisation of society's rubbish, so typical of his work, he interweaves Africa's colonial past with the politically charged everyday life of the present day.