‘A Studio Is a Sacred Place’: Get a Behind-the-Scenes Look at How El Anatsui Builds Glittering Tapestries Out of Bottle Caps

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Ghanaian visual artist El Anatsui. Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images.
Ghanaian visual artist El Anatsui. Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images.

The front of the Haus der Kunst in Munich is covered in printing plates. The wave of monumental curtains, made from 10,000 German and Nigerian plates used in offset printing, is longer than a football field. It is the handiwork of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, one of a number of new works he created for his largest and most comprehensive retrospective to date, “El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale,” on view through July 28 at the German museum.

El Anatsui was already an established artist when he came across a bag of bottle caps that would change his life forever. After years working as a sculptor in wood, he began to create massive three-dimensional artworks made of used bottle caps. When woven together with copper thread, the caps would transform into tapestries of color and light the artist calls “blocks.”

Now, the artist employs dozens of assistants at his Nigeria studio to help create these works, and in an episode of Art21’s “Extended Play” series, viewers can go behind the scenes of his artistic process. “I try to impress upon them that a studio is a sacred place,” El Anatsui tells Art21, explaining that although he has lots of help to assemble the immense textured works, ultimately he is involved in every step of the production.

“For each new pattern or texture… I show them how it’s done,” he notes. “As an artist, if you don’t maintain physical contact… the work might end up not having a soul.”

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "El Anatsui: Studio Process." © Art21, Inc. 2012.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “El Anatsui: Studio Process.” © Art21, Inc. 2012.

The “blocks” formed by sewing together various materials are extremely mutable, so for different exhibitions, the artist can deconstruct and re-contextualize colors and patterns as he chooses. The result is “a very large bank of effects, of textures—that can trigger off new ideas,” he says.

The Haus der Kunst show is especially momentous as it was the last show organized by the artist’s friend and legendary curator Okwui Enwezor before he died earlier this year. “El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale” focuses on the entire arc of his career, telling the story of Africa’s subjugation and struggle for independence by incorporating the history of trade, the environment, and struggle into the literal fabric of his work.

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale” is on view at Munich’s Haus der Kunst through July 28, 2019. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.


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