3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About El Anatsui’s Metallic Kente Cloths
El Anatsui, an artist and professor who lives in Nigeria, has been creating glittering, fluid sculptures that recall his native Ghana’s traditional kente cloths since the late 1990s. “…Cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners,” he once said, and fittingly, his large-scale works create a monumental impact upon viewing. They can be found hanging in some of the world’s most famous museums, such as the British Museum; Centre Pompidou; the Met; and the MFA, Boston.
1. Kente cloths were so prestigious that only royalty and important officials of the Asante kingdom were allowed to wear them. Anatsui’s sculptures invoke the rich tradition of kente by mimicking the narrow strip patterns of the actual textiles, but also bring to mind global consumerism and the economics of the slave trade through the flattened aluminum caps of liquor bottles from which they are fashioned.
2. Anatsui employs over a dozen assistants to flatten the bottle caps into strips, which they then cut and shape into blocks. He arranges the blocks in a formation to his liking and the pieces are stitched together using copper wire. Most of his assistants aren’t actually aspiring artists, but rather are Nigerian students waiting to take their university entrance exams.
3. Traditional kente cloths are woven on unique looms that allow weavers to juxtapose vertical stripes (the warp-face pattern) with intricate geometric designs (the weft-face pattern) in a painstaking process requiring significant training and skill. In fact, the origins of kente are traced in Akan mythology to the spider Ananse, a trickster renowned for exceptional cleverness.
- Anatsui’s father and some of his brothers (he is the youngest of 32 siblings) weave traditional Ewe (pronounced Ev-ay) kente cloth. The Ewe are a people of Anatsui’s native Ghana.
- Anatsui does not install each of his sculptures himself. Rather, he allows the curator of each museum or gallery displaying them to hang them. He relishes the unfixed physical quality of each sculpture, and while he prefers horizontal drapes over vertical ripples, does not give curators specific instructions, maintaining an element of surprise. He says: “It’s like when I am firing a ceramic piece — until you open the kiln and let it cool it down you don’t know what it is going to look like. I like that surprise. That is why I allow — I prefer — that other people mount the works.”
- Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “Asante Textile Arts”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/asan_3/hd_asan_3.htm (October 2003)
- “Textile Wrapper [Ghana; Akan] (1993.384.2)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1993.384.2 (October 2006)
- Worth, Alexi. “El Anatsui.” NYTimes.com, New York Times, 19 Feb. 2009. Web.
- A detail of a kente cloth in the Met: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/images/hb/hb_1993.384.2_av1.jpg
- Detail of one of his cloths in the Met: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/images/hb/hb_2007.96_av5.jpg