Installation view of Hyundai Commission: El Anatsui: Behind the Red Moon, 2023–24. Photo: © Tate (Joe Humphrys)

El Anatsui


Tate Modern

Long before being commissioned for Turbine Hall, El Anatsui knew the Tate name. When he was growing up in Ghana (formerly known as Gold Coast, a British Crown colony until 1957), the only cube sugar available was supplied by the London-based conglomerate, Tate and Lyle. The Victorian founder of this hugely profitable food company used his fortune to create the original Tate Gallery. 

This association was one catalyst for Behind the Red Moon, Anatsui’s series of billowing, sail-like metal tapestries (on view through April 14, 2024). He relates how the cavernous space made him think of the belly of a ship, an allusion that resonates deeply with someone raised on the West African coast. For centuries, vessels transported raw materials and refined goods around the British Empire as part of its global maritime trade. At one time, that trade included human cargo (in which Tate did not engage), and the Gold Coast was the departure point for thousands taken in slavery to Jamaica, where the bulk of the sugar cane consumed in Europe was once cultivated with this imported labor.

Anatsui’s career began over four decades ago with objects made from clay and tropical hardwoods. These sculptures often had a modular structure that could be altered to suit different settings or intentions, while the materials were familiar to viewers who interacted with them in their daily lives. He still maintains that approach, although, over the past 20 years, his international reputation has been most associated with reused aluminum bottle tops. Prepared by squadrons of assistants recruited near the artist’s studios in Nigeria and Ghana, hundreds of thousands of these caps are clipped, flattened, and linked with copper wire into flexible sculptural entities capable of multiple forms of display—curtaining the elevation of a building, covering a huge floor area, or shaped across treetops in a landscape. 

Curious about the possibilities of any material, Anatsui started to trace the route through which these screw tops—and, by extension, the liquor they hold— enter into the everyday life of a continent where they are single-use, throw-away items, detritus from the mass-consumption of bottled alcoholic drinks. He came across his first supply by accident, in a bag abandoned on the roadside. Transformed and reinvented, these unexalted bottle tops encapsulate Africa’s subservient place in a circular exchange of raw material for finished product that reaches back several centuries.

That sociopolitical context is not immediately apparent, however. For an artist whose work depends on uniting elements, hidden associations are reached intellectually by unraveling thought chains. At the most immediate level, the physical presence of Behind the Red Moon trumps its conceptual acuity. Real-time experience (in which sensory exposure suspends any search for meaning) makes the primary impact, not a history lesson.

Installation view of Hyundai Commission: El Anatsui: Behind the Red Moon, 2023–24. Photo: © Tate (Joe Humphrys)

The three sculptural constructions descend almost the entire five-story height of Turbine Hall’s architectural canyon while also spanning much of its width. The installation supplies its own drama—scale and infinite extension are the inherent properties of Anatsui’s practice. Stage design on a prodigious scale is an apt comparison, reflecting the constant crossing of technical and cultural boundaries initiated by his works. The similarity to net-making in terms of process, for instance, resonates with the artist’s birthplace of Anyako, a fishing community on the Keta Lagoon; cross-fertilization between postwar transatlantic abstraction and the aesthetic of West African textiles, long disparaged or ignored in the West, simultaneously animates and confuses the origins of his imagery.

Greeted by the broad wall of the first piece (which lends its title to the entire installation), viewers encounter an expanse of shimmering red tones that coalesce into an abstract composition akin to a lunar circle eclipsing the sun. On the reverse, the prickly metal cataract of color and texture assumes a modulated palette of brilliant yellows. Those tones form a screen for the central element, The World, an open metal mesh globe. Silhouetted figures on the surface appear to float within the porous atmosphere of the wider atrium like perpetual nomads. Their relationship with these surroundings remains ambiguous, in keeping with the open readings that Anatsui encourages. The possibility of humanity caught within the fretwork of the globe, like garments buffeted inside a tumble dryer by forces outside their control, fuels tension within the piece.

A similar tension exists in the black and blue cascade of creases and undulating folds that constitutes one side of The Wall, the third hanging. Allusions to the sea and waves foment in the folds at the foot of the vertiginous drop of glinting material. From absorption in the whole, the viewer’s attention inevitably shifts to individual parts. Tiered viewing points from ground floor to the ascending balconies facilitate the scrutiny of details, from subtle gradations of color to traces of printed script on each cap and acres of dexterous stitching. 

As a tour-de-force of repetitive action, each element stresses the craft of skilled making that has defined artisanal activity through the ages. Re-use is an inescapable contemporary theme, but this is not recycling since the metal seals are not given a new industrial function. Instead, their transformation is metaphorical, about gestures and consequences; as an investigation of being, the process is also profoundly philosophical. As the network of links grows across a widening area, it acquires molecular strength, retains its portability, and gains the ability to reshape itself. By mimicking the dynamic structures of the natural world, Anatsui merges artistic practice with the radical malleability of the social landscape, a sphere in which new capabilities enable human solidarity to challenge political and economic hierarchies. 

By expressing a creative freedom that contrasts with the exploitative trade practices and human slavery that this humble resource is made to symbolize, Anatsui’s work unfolds its multivalency on many interconnected levels. The prodigious heights of Turbine Hall provide a surprisingly apposite location in which to contemplate their possibilities.