Like an emperor’s robe

by February 13, 2011

"Akua's Surviving Children", by El Anatsui (1996)

Guest post by Abby Plener

As a student, I often question how valuable it is to learn about history in an academic setting. We are taught to use our textbooks as lenses through which we can understand the world around us and how the past has shaped the present. But perhaps our view is too limited – perhaps there are stories beyond the scope of scholarship that cannot possibly be experienced from the comfort of a classroom.

For internationally-renowned artist El Anatsui, history is not simply a lesson to be learned, but a collection of experiences to be harnessed as we articulate our future potential. The Ghanaian artist is best known for incorporating discarded bottle caps, wood, metal, and other items into immense wall-sculptures, providing a poignant reflection on issues of sustainability, consumerism, and globalization. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is currently hosting the world premiere of his most recent showcase, El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You from Africa, which will run until February 27th before proceeding on a three-year long North American tour. The exhibit spans his entire four-decade long career including drawings, paintings, as well as his wood, ceramic, metal sculptures which first made him famous. As an article from explains:

Assembling the hangings is arduous: 20 or more studio assistants flatten thousands of caps and labels that are then punctured and woven together by copper wire. Anatsui then arranges them into pieces like his 2009 hanging Three Continents, which shimmers like an emperor’s robe. It represents a new kind of cartography that not only traces Ghanaian traditions like the art of fabric weaving like Kente, but also points towards a future in which today’s excesses can be redeemed. This metallic canvas outlines a vast empire — from the slight swell of the aluminum sea to the undulating ribbons of a red desert.

You can read the rest of the article here or go to the ROM’s website for more information about the exhibit.

Abby Plener hails from Toronto, Ontario and is currently completing her degree in English Literature at McGill University in Montreal. Her other interests include politics, media studies, and equity issues. She can be reached at

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