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Soleme, 2008

El Anatsui

Look closely at this intricately worked wall hanging from MAD’s permanent collection, which invites us to contemplate Africa’s past and present. Find inspiration to create your own socially aware artwork in this object lesson for people of all ages.


Born in Ghana and based in Nigeria, artist El Anatsui uses unconventional materials to evoke Africa’s history of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. His art also celebrates the resourcefulness and creativity of African artisans, from the makers of traditional textiles to the recycling-based practices of contemporary craftspeople. As you look closely, pay attention to where your eyes wander and how your mind processes the visual information.

Make a drawing of what you see. The goal is not to make a perfect reproduction of the piece but to notice details you might otherwise miss.  

  • Look at your drawing and describe what stands out to you.        
  • What areas or details were you particularly drawn to?
  • How would you describe the overall shape of this work?
  • What patterns did you notice?                       
  • Describe the color palette of the work.                       
  • What materials do you think the artist used to make this piece?
  • How do you think it was assembled?
  • Imagine touching the work or even taking it off the walls. What might its texture feel like and what sound might its movement make?


For his wall hangings, El Anatsui frequently uses the discarded caps of liquor bottles, which are arranged into dazzling monumental compositions and fastened together with copper wire. Soleme is a comparatively intimate work that relates comfortably to our own human scale.

  • Taking another look at Soleme. What does it remind you of?

Made out of metal, the wall piece nevertheless “behaves” like a textile and is reminiscent of chain mail, quilts, and ceremonial garments. There is a sense of flow and impermanence. In contrast to traditional sculpture that is fixed in place, El Anatsui’s wall hangings bend and fold organically, so they look differently each time they are installed on a gallery wall. The artist embraces this aspect of chance, just like he embraces collaboration as the foundation of his work.

Watch this short video to learn more about El Anatsui’s process.

  • What did you learn about the way El Anatsui’s wall hangings are produced?
  • What was surprising to you about this process?
  • How does collaborating with assistants on such a large scale challenge your assumptions about artists working in their studios?


El Anatsui says, “As an artist, if you don’t maintain physical contact… the work might end up not having a soul.”

  • What do you think he means by this? 

The liquor bottle caps used to create Soleme were sourced from local alcohol recycling stations.

  • Why do you think the artist chose this particular material to work with?
  • What does the use of discarded materials generally and liquor bottle caps specifically suggest to you?  

El Anatsui’s work draws attention to the role of alcohol in the colonial history connecting Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Introduced by European traders, liquor became a currency in the transatlantic slave trade used to bribe tribal leaders and coerce advantageous trading conditions for merchants, cementing racial hierarchies. Transatlantic slave ships would return from the Americas with a cargo of rum, a by-product of Caribbean sugar plantations that ran on the labor of enslaved Africans, thus completing the circle of brutal exploitation.

At the same time, the patterning of Soleme is reminiscent of kente cloth, the woven fabric produced by the Asante and Ewe people of Ghana. The bright colors denote values such as prosperity and wealth (yellow), spiritual energy (black), blood, death, or mourning (red), harvest, growth, and renewal (green). Dating back to the 9th century, kente cloth was historically reserved to be worn by royalty, but has become a symbol of West African pride and dignity in contemporary culture.


Everyday objects prompt powerful associations with certain aspects of contemporary life: toilet paper tubes might evoke memories of the shortage of bathroom products at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in the US and beyond. Disposable face masks have become symbols of the global pandemic while also adding to pollution. Plastic bags carry stories of consumer culture while disposable water bottles can point both the limits of recycling and the scarcity of clean drinking water in a growing number of communities worldwide. 

Find inspiration in El Anatsui’s work to create your own sculpture out of recycled materials to address an issue that’s important to you.

El Anatsui
Soleme, 2005
72 × 88 × 4 in. (182.9 × 223.5 × 10.2 cm)
Aluminum liquor bottle caps and copper wire
Museum of Arts and Design, New York; gift of Aviva and Jack Robinson

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