Who Is El Anatsui?

David Levene/ Guardian News & Media Ltd

A global master of detritus comes into his own.

One of Africa’s best-known contemporary artists, El Anatsui is also one of the world’s most critically successful. Fresh off a major exhibition of light-as-air mammoth works at New York City’s Brooklyn Museum—fittingly called “Gravity & Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui”—the Ghanaian-born Nigerian resident is justly celebrated for inventing an original sculptural medium where before there was only junk and garbage.

His sumptuous, culturally loaded tapestries, strung together with chicken wire, scrap metal and twist-off liquor-bottle caps, transform local remnants of various global scourges Europeans brought over with the slave trade; most prominent among these are the colorful tops to the African-distilled hooch that the artist and his assistants recover from dumps near his home in Nsukka, eight hours east of Lagos. Reminiscent, too, of the global history of abstraction—think Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock—El Anatsui’s shimmering scrap cloth has colonized (or is that de-colonized?) the white walls and modernist spaces of the world’s biggest art venues. Few museum experiences today prove as thought-provoking or outright visually spectacular.

El Anatsui, whose breakout moment was the 2007 Venice Biennale, has seen versions of his truly magic carpets enter the collections of canonical institutions like the Metropolitan, the Centre Pompidou and the British Museum. The artist has long referred to his undulating, sheet-like forms as the “epitome of freedom.” Today his humongous, gravity-defying wall hangings join a very short list—along with Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel, Robert Rauschenberg’s bed and Jeff Koons’s basketballs—of history-making masterpieces of detritus.