A series of monumental wall sculptures are on display at the University of Edinburgh in the most comprehensive UK exhibition of one of Africa’s most acclaimed artists.

Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s exhibition at the University’s Talbot Rice Gallery will feature a series of his iconic metal wall hangings crafted out of bottle tops alongside carved wooden reliefs and printed works on paper.

The exhibition will include a monumental 15-metre-wide outdoor wall hanging, TSIATSIA – Searching for Connection, that will cover the façade of the Old College Quadrangle.

El Anatsui’s work, which reflects on cultural heritage and the impact of colonialism, has been the subject of major international museum exhibitions, including most recently in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London.

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Titled, Scottish Mission Book Depot Keta, the Talbot Rice Gallery exhibition is named after a Scottish missionary book depot that provided books and crayons to El Anatsui as a child and helped to influence his early artistic development.

The exhibition invites audiences to explore the rich and vibrant tapestry of his five-decade career, which began in the aftermath of the British colonial period in Ghana, and how he uses his art to engage with the complex legacies of colonialism in Africa.

Highlights include the debut of a new wall sculpture created specifically for Talbot Rice Gallery, alongside notable work Woman’s Cloth, which is on loan from the British Museum.

One of Africa’s most prominent artists, many of El Anatsui’s artworks are created through the stitching-together of thousands of aluminum bottle tops, reclaimed from Ghanaian and Nigerian liquor bottling (and increasingly printing-press) industries.

The pictorial compositions reflect the complexity of stitching together cultural, national and ethnic ideas of belonging in the aftermath of colonialism in Africa. They carry the weaving traditions of El Anatsui’s own heritage (his father was both a fisherman and master weaver of Kente cloth) and express the vulnerability of our natural world.

A series of monumental wall sculptures are on display at the University of Edinburgh A series of monumental wall sculptures are on display at the University of Edinburgh (Image: Maverick Photo Agency)

Slipping mercurially between painting and sculpture, the artworks are shape-shifting forms installed differently every time they are shown. Giving them a life and evolution that reflects El Anatsui’s active understanding of his artworks as living objects they become carriers of meaning: listening and evolving, reacting to whoever has them in their custody. Rippling with intensity, his unification of thousands of fragments of metal to create a metamorphic whole has become fundamental to our understanding of the sculptural object and its ability to evolve.

El Anatsui has a long and distinguished career as both sculptor and teacher – he taught at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for nearly four decades.

In 2014, El Anatsui was made an Honorary Royal Academician and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2015, he was awarded the Venice Biennale’s highest honour, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. 

Major solo exhibitions include Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, (2010);  National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan (2010);  Akron Art Museum, Akron, Ohio (2012), which travelled to the Brooklyn Museum, New York and the Des Moines Art Center, Iowa (2013); Bass Museum of Art, Miami, Florida (2014); and Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, California (2015). 

His work is held in prestigious public collections across the globe including: Centre Pompidou, Paris; Smithsonian Institution, Washington; Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanagawa, Japan among others.

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While his work is exhibited in the Talbot Rice Gallery, Anatsui will be recognised with an Honorary Degree from the University of Edinburgh at this year’s graduations.

Anatsui will visit Scotland’s capital in July to receive the title of doctor honoris causa for his significant contributions to the art world.

Tessa Giblin, curator of the exhibition and Director of Talbot Rice Gallery, said: “Working with El Anatsui on making this exhibition has been a once in a lifetime experience.

"Against the backdrop of Old College, El Anatsui's work – with its powerful commentary on history and heritage – will invite visitors to reflect on Scotland's, and indeed the University of Edinburgh’s, own complex colonial legacies."