European 'wax' resist printed and 'fancy' or roller-printed cotton fabrics found a thriving market along the West African Coast. Specifically designed and produced in the mills of The Netherlands and northern England to appeal to the demands and aesthetics of their market, the cloths often emulated West African textile designs or featured historical events, or political figures of the time. In the history of international contact liquor was another major commodity traded by Europeans for slaves giving Anatsui's bottle-tops a further layer of resonance. As early as the 18th century, bottles of schnapps from distilleries specifically established in Liverpool to supply exports to Africa, and rum, a by-product of the Caribbean sugar plantations for which Africa had supplied the labour, were the preferred items of exchange touted by European traders on the West African coast. In 1810, a slave could be acquired with 126 US gallons of the sugar based spirit, aguardente, and by 1885, gin had almost entirely replaced cowries as currency in Lagos. Anatsui's work gently alerts us to the human relationships behind the materials that surround us, interlacing
histories and ideas like elements within a cloth. Yet his works are too fluid, too temporal and personal to be described as commemorative or monumental in Sonya Clark's sense. There is certainly a monumentality of scale, with all its accompanying impact – Sasa (2004), a work that has toured internationally with the exhibition Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, spans an awesome seven metres. But while commemorative cloths and public monuments literally inscribe on the landscape or wearer a pre-determined narrative, Anatsui's works do quite the opposite, inviting counter-narratives and engaged personal response. ••• Polly Savage A version of this essay was published in Moving Worlds: A journal of Transcultural Writings Vol 5 No1 (spring 2005) pp.173-175 and reprinted in a modified version by David Krut Publishing in association with October Gallery, on the occasion of El Anatsui's 2006 exhibition at David Krut Project, New York. El Anatsui’s work appears in Uncomfortable Truths, The Shadow of Slave Trading on Contemporary Art and Design, 20 February17 June, Victoria and Albert Museum, www.vam.ac.uk
01 Sasa, 2004, El Anatsui Aluminium and Copper Wire, 840 x 640cm. Collection: Centre Pompidou, Paris. 02 Narrow strip woven man’s cloth from Ghana. EWE Mid 20th Century, 324 x 182cm.
Longevity Photography, Courtesy of Joss Graham Gallery