In Spite of the Darkness, El Anatsui Brings the Light

Through a series of breathtaking works at Tate Modern’s soaring Turbine Hall, the Ghanaian sculptor’s signature bottle-cap weavings suspend injustice and desolation—and amble toward lightness through it all.

“Behind the Red Moon” by El Anatsui for the Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern. Photography by Joe Humphrys, courtesy of Tate

London may offer a world-class helping of contemporary art all year round, but a multitude of marquee shows—Marina Abramović’s Royal Academy retrospective and the ambitious 1-54 Contemporary Art Fair, to name a couple—attracted hordes of deep-pocketed collectors to the British capital during Frieze Week. (But perhaps that’s not always positive.) Nevertheless, few were as staggering in scale and scope as El Anatsui’s monumental textile-style sculptures undulating within Tate Modern’s soaring Turbine Hall, a vast industrial space the museum activates for the annual Hyundai Commission. Previous recipients stunned—Anicka Yi’s “aerobe” machines sculpted the air while Kara Walker’s somber fountain exposed chilling injustice—but the 79-year-old Anatsui turns trash into artistic treasure.

Anatsui, who splits time between Nigeria and Ghana, sculpts with thousands of recycled bottle caps stitched together to create expansive mosaics meditating on human history and the natural world’s elemental power. His Tate commission, the largest of his career, unfolds in three acts, beginning with a “blood moon” resembling a ship’s sail billowing out in the wind as it journeys across the Atlantic. The second one layers human figures, suspended restlessly, that unite into a singular Earth-like form. The final piece stretches black metal cloth from floor to ceiling, signifying waves cascading onto rocky peaks and echoing the collision of global cultures and hybrid identities stemming from migration. They take advantage of the hall’s profusion of natural light to create dazzling color play inside as the day progresses. 

(FROM LEFT) El Anatsui. “Behind the Red Moon.” Photography by Lucy Green and Joe Humphrys, courtesy of Tate

Sculpting with bottle caps, which Anatsui began in the 1970s to reclaim industry detritus, meditates on human waste and slyly references the Transatlantic slave trade. “I didn’t quite find the freedom in [metal sheets] until I started working with bottle caps, which were far lighter, and with which I could create bigger and more versatile sheets,” Anatsui wrote in a 2020 op-ed for The Guardian. “I kept discovering new things about the material, and 20 years on it’s still yielding new ideas. The bottle cap hasn’t reached the end of its run yet. I doubt it can have an end because it keeps coming up with new properties. People can work in painting for a whole career, but this has more versatility than canvas and oil. It could be a medium to occupy a whole lifetime, easily.”

His prior works made use of rum, a drink made by African slaves in the Americas and exported to Europe, linking all three continents. It’s easy to overlook such details when confronted with the overwhelming gestalt in Turbine Hall, but Anatsui rewards close looking. Climbing the hall’s central bridge brings viewers close enough to decipher human-like shapes in a golden mobile. “They are massed close together, like refugees on a raft, trying to help each other, swaying in a stately, anguished dance,” writes critic Jonathan Jones. “Like Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, these fragile human souls only have each other. We only have each other. We are scrap with a soul.”

“Behind the Red Moon” by El Anatsui for the Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern. Photography by Joe Humphrys, courtesy of Tate

“El Anatsui: Behind the Red Moon” will be on view at Tate Modern (Bankside, London) until April 14.

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