View from above of a desktop with scissors, paper scraps, and slivers of aluminum.

A view of El Anatsui’s workspace in Dee Briggs’ studio. Photo: Bryan Conley

Mirrored Skies: The Monumental and Transformative Art of El Anatsui

El Anatsui—Ghanaian artist, visionary, Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award-winner—maneuvered tiny pieces of material upon a model of Carnegie Museum of Art, his focus direct and careful as he worked in a firehouse-turned-art-studio in Wilkinsburg, a small town just outside of Pittsburgh. He shifted sections this way and that until they rested to his liking. In a few short months, the full-sized version of this sculpture would adorn the facade of the building, drifting in the wind and reflecting the changing skies of Pittsburgh.

This work, the frontispiece for the 2018 Carnegie International, took over six days to install, but many months more to dream up, fabricate, and make real. Countless hands manipulated the materials, moving in conversation across the Atlantic Ocean to realize Anatsui’s vision. The sculpture, titled Three Angles, consists of discarded bottle caps from Nigeria, old newspaper printing plates from Pittsburgh, mirrors, and other found and scavenged materials that reflect those two places. Anatsui has become famous for taking forsaken objects and turning them into sculptures that almost seem to breathe. His use of texture, shape, and sense of place root his art within the cultures and communities where they are shown.

Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui discusses his art practice.

Working closely with local artist Dee Briggs, Anatsui oversaw the process that turned his sketches and models into the 160-foot sculpture that now drapes across the front of the museum. On his visit to Pittsburgh in May of last year, Anatsui took inspiration from the history of the city’s rivers and their employ as conveyors of information. The rivers that connect bustling eastern cities with the industry and farmland of the midwest are both arteries serving the commands of government and economy and elemental pathways that carved their way long before people walked their shores.

The fluid channels that run through Anatsui’s design arch across the building, reaching towards the sky, the ground, and the massive Richard Serra sculpture, dubbed Carnegie, that has long been the first piece of art museum visitors see.

“It’s very iconic, but it tended to disappear into the environment itself,” said Anatsui of the Serra piece. “And so, in conceiving a design I wanted something that brings it out more, so it stands out from the environment rather than getting completely lost in it. I decided that I should do something that is a response to, or an echo of what he put there. Seeing as I want to bring it out, to be more visible, I should do something else that answers back to it.”

To this end, the mirrored pieces of Anatsui’s work are positioned behind the Serra, reflecting the sculpture and the sky above. This view changes depending on the time of day and the weather.

Artist sits at a table in a studio, with mirrors arranged on the table.
El Anatsui arranges materials for his sculpture. Photo: Bryan Conley

Unlike most artworks, whose specifications regarding lighting, heat, and placement are often hair splittingly examined, Anatsui’s works have to contend with the elements, with gravity, and with the structures upon and around which they hang. As such, his carefully designed and assembled sculptures are also quite malleable, allowing them to work with their surroundings, rather than resist them.

Although currently living and working in Nsukka, Nigeria, Anatsui was raised in Ghana. He points to the tradition of weaving kente cloth, a well-established Ghanaian practice of weaving strips of fabric together to form colorful patterns, as a cultural influence on his aesthetic. The liquor bottle caps he uses are also rooted in the cultural history of Ghana, reflecting the impact of colonialism, globalism, consumerism, and environmental damage in his country. Four sections of the sculpture are made from these bottle caps, forming a dark swath that appears earthy in color and contrasts strongly with the bright printing plates and mirrored panels.

In designing the sculpture, Anatsui developed a thematic conversation between his studio in Nigeria and the Wilkinsburg studio. In his own studio, multiple people were needed to complete the meticulous hand-work required to construct the sheets of woven material. Meanwhile, in Briggs’s studio, a crew of neighbors and community members were employed to assemble the reconfigured printing plates. Piece by piece, more than 5,000 miles apart, the studios worked in tandem.

Two people in a studio holding a metal printing plate.
El Anatsui and Ingrid Schaffner examine a printing plate, part of Anatsui’s sculpture. Photo: Bryan Conley

Both in scale and in placement, Three Angles follows in the tradition of other notable artworks from recent Carnegie Internationals. In 2013, Phyllida Barlow’s anti-monumental sculpture, TIP, spilled out towards the street from the Fountain Entry. For Life on Mars, the 2008 International, Doug Aitken projected his video installation, titled Migration, directly onto the same facade where Three Angles now hangs.

For curator Ingrid Schaffner, Anatsui’s sculpture is a convergence of Pittsburgh and the global arts community, a relationship that sits at the heart of the exhibition. “His participation in the 57th Carnegie International connects our museum and city to a palazzo in Venice, a tower in Marrakech, the Royal Academy in London,” said Schaffner. “The sculpture connects locally, too.”

As an entryway to the International, Three Angles beckons to viewers, encouraging them to visit the exhibition. Anatsui, however, has no interest in telling his audience how to interpret his work. “I want to lead them to the open sea and let them determine what they’re going to do—whether they are going to dive or float or swim or, you know, there are so many things you can do in the sea,” he said. “All of them are okay.”