El Anatsui
Totems, 2004
African Greenheart wood 

The tropical hardwood from which the Totems have been carved started life as trees in West Africa. The wood was re-purposed from charred timbers after a section of the nearby Falmouth Docks, originally built in 1860 to become an internationally significant port, was destroyed by fire.

Anatsui draws connections between consumption, waste and human impact on the environment, while hinting at the broader narratives of the colonial and post-colonial economic and cultural exchange between Africa and the Western world. He raises questions about ethnic identity and addresses a wide range of political and social concerns through the juxtaposition of specific materials, traditional African aesthetics, and imagery and abstraction more commonly associated with Western Art and culture.

The carved, cartoon like faces of Totems are intimidating but also humorous, reminiscent of mass-produced souvenirs often seen piled high in West African tourist shops. The expressive eyes, nostrils and mouths are drawn through simple bevelled holes and comparisons could be made to contemporary emoji faces.

About the artist

El Anatsui (born in Anyako, Ghana 1944) currently lives and works in Nigeria and has played a major role in redirecting the Western focus on contemporary art, emerging from the vibrant post-independence art movements of the 1960s and ‘70s in West Africa.

Throughout a distinguished forty-year career as both sculptor and teacher, the artist has addressed a vast range of social, political and historical concerns, and embraced an equally diverse range of media and processes.

Anatsui is interested in using what he describes as ‘Language from home […] from my own culture and environment', creating objects heavily based on traditional Ghanaian beliefs, motifs and subjects. He often incorporates what he calls 'Adinsubli', an acronym made up of uli, nsibidi and Adinrka symbols.

He is best known for his transformative approach to materials, drawing particular international attention for his large-scale installations. In addition to traditional materials, Anatsui re-purposes scrapped items usually sourced from West Africa, such as old milk tins, bottle caps and iron nails. He turns the discarded into objects of beauty, and highlights that there are some places in the world where people have to re-use materials out of necessity, rather than as a choice. His juxtaposition of traditional African aesthetics, Western abstraction and modernism, and cast-off materials, hints at topics such as global consumerism and the history of colonial trade.

Anatsui’s sculptures have been collected by major international museums, from the British Museum, London to the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the de Young Museum, San Francisco; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi; Osaka Foundation of Culture, Osaka; Museum of Modern Art, New York and many other prestigious institutions besides. In 2014, he was made an Honorary Royal Academician as well as elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2015 he was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 56th International Art Exhibition of the Biennale di Venezia – All the World’s Futures and in 2016 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Cape Town. In 2018 he was awarded the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Award for Sculpture.

Find out more on the El Anatsui website