Patrique deGraft-Yankson & Ernst Wagner & ISB_Team

El Anatsui, 2019, mixed media, 14,38 m x 6,90 m, Haus der Kunst, Munich. © El Anatsui

Two Perspectives on ‘Rising Sea’

El Anatsui (born 1944) is a Ghanaian sculptor active in Nigeria. He is internationally known for his huge “bottle-top installations” like “Rising Sea” presented and discussed here. El Anatsui was selected to act as a member on the International Society for Education through Art (InSEA ) world council in 1992 for his work in education. Patrique deGraft-Yankson of the University of Education in Winneba, Ghana, and Ernst Wagner of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich have written the following interpretations of “Rising Sea” – in a parallel writing process. Both authors knew nothing about each other’s texts, so the texts were created independently from each other.

  • Patrique deGraft-Yankson
    Patrique deGraft-Yankson

    The Rising Sea by El Anatsui is a naturalistic presentation of an ocean in turbulence, which elicit attention through both grotesquery and finesse. The work, which covers an area of about 14,38 by 6,90 meters, is made up of several pieces of flattened aluminum bottle tops stitched together with copper wires into a massive sheet of grey wall overlay.


    To achieve the intended illusion, the artist manipulated portions of the metal fabric into large series of ridges of different sizes that combine into an irregular rhythm randomly positioned across the surface of the sheet to simulate sea waves. Beyond supporting the movements of the sea waves, the rhythm created by the raised portions of the work also provides narrow range of values that effectively bring out the three-dimensionality of the work and transforms the otherwise flat sheet into an illusionistic volume. 


    Like the texture of oil paints in Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the texture of the stitched pieces of metals sheets introduce energy into the work, bringing out the fluidity of the sea and the potency of the mesmeric sea waves. Indeed, improper disposal of those materials used (and many others) is causing a lot of nuisance in his home country and other parts around the globe, with the sea being the most affected. Therefore, right from the materials used to its marvelous finishing, it is not difficult to discern a blend of severe censuring and admonition in the voice of the artist. The sea is, in the way presented, depicted as rising against improper treatment; and El, by the pains taken to stitch every piece of material together, seems to emphasize the need to make it our business to salvage the sea from improper handling.


    The sea, which has served as an important source of livelihood for Ghanaians over the centuries invokes multidimensional viewpoints and draws out divergent responses and reactions depending on its relationship with the people. Among the coastal dwellers (and indeed a very great population of Ghanaians), the sea is considered an important resource for commercial activities, an arena for entertainment and recreation and grounds for spiritual exploits and worship.


    He himself being born in the coastal town of Anyako in the Volta Region of Ghana, El seems to know so much about the sea. Growing up, he most likely experienced the sea being perceived, treated and utilized in many different ways. Besides its major use for commercial activities and other useful ventures, he might have listened to many stories about the sea as a god (with other inhabitants), as a provider and as a friend. He might have learnt about how the sea and her inhabitants contribute to the fortunes of the people. He might have witnessed how people got healed as they bathed in the sea, or had their fortunes turned around as they threw some coins in the ocean and made their requests known to the sea.


    Beyond this, he might have also been warned about the consequences of flouting the taboos and other prohibitions that regulate the “use” of the sea, including forbiddance from desecrating the sea with unhealthy practices such as defecating in the sea, throwing filth into the sea or wearing sandals or shoes in the sea and the need to observe the tabooed fishing days, and so on. Besides, another important thing which Ghanaian coastal dwellers take very seriously is the need to adhere to physical signs and conditions of the sea, which have various local interpretations and implications. For instance, there are periods when the sea is considered as “full”, during which times the sea waves “rise” and become more intense and turbulent. Fisher folks are supposed to take a rest from “climbing the sea” (as they say in the local parlance) as the sea is likely to be unfriendly, and therefore unconducive for fishing.


    Factors that cause the “rising” of the sea may not be ordinarily known. However, according to coastal dwellers, there is always something sinister about a rising sea – either somebody got drowned, or someone or a group of persons might have violated the rules of the sea god – and what motivated El in his presentation of the Rising sea might not be any different from what are traditionally believed. Probably the sea is fed up with deliberate dumping of wastes and toxic materials into her bowels. Therefore, she must rise!


    But the “full” or “rising” sea is not as unfriendly as it sounds. Though it prevents fishing activities, which might be one way of punishing the people for disrespecting her, it also affords the people the opportunity to dry up their canoes, mend their nets and relax in the beautiful view of the sea along the coast. The occasions of the rising sea also witness other people who just move along the shores to observe the large waves that gather in the deep ocean, roll angrily towards the shoreline and dissolve tumultuously at the shore in a creamy white lather. The views at the seashore during these periods are nothing short of aesthetical experience that is shared by different kinds of observers with different perceptions, questioning, discussing, enjoying.

    In so many ways therefore, the spectacle of observers in front of El Anatsui’s gigantic reconstruction of the Rising Sea gives so much semblance to the natural phenomenon, and this is a fundamental underpinning to the success of El’s work.


    Culturally, the Rising Sea could be perceived as an allusion to the dynamisms in life, which sometimes rise against human tendencies and restrict mundane behavior, at the same time ensuring regularization of natural behaviors. What is important is to identify what is causing what, and how to seek for the right solutions.


    For it to be presented as an aesthetic piece of work, El is probably saying that, the Rising is Sea is frightening; it is confusing; it is chaotic. But she is still beautiful, because in the right time, when given the right treatment, she will calm down so we have nothing to fear. She is still our god, our friend, our provider and our protector.



    published February 2020

    Ernst Wagner
    Ernst Wagner

    El Anatsui (* 1944) created 'Rising Sea' 2019 specifically for a particular wall in a comprehensive solo exhibition of his oeuvre entitled “Triumphant Scale” at the ‘Haus der Kunst’ in Munich. Like many of his other works, “Rising Sea” is a large-scale piece comprised of thousands of flattened liquor bottle caps (extrapolated approx. 190.000) that have been tied together with copper wire. It hangs like a large tapestry from ceiling to floor and though it looks solid, it is flexible and has a seemingly textile structure. The effect is monumental and magnificent; it impresses by the sheer size as well as by the sensual materiality of the almost infinite number of small, shimmering pieces of tinplate.


    To see the composition we need to view the work from a distance. The sculpture is divided into three starkly contrasting horizontal zones. A vibrantly colored strip runs along the bottom. It appears fragile and becomes thinner and interrupted as it runs toward the lower right corner. The broad, massive, monochrome grey zone in the middle falls with heavy folds. The third zone at the top is a narrow, shiny, silver and smoother appearing plane that rises from its lower edge on the left in a sharp line upwards to the right, like a ‘Silberstreif’ (i.e. glimmer of hope).


    Nearing the work, we discover bright flecks of color that emerge out of the shimmering mother-of-pearl gray middle zone. While some of the flecks appear to build concrete figurations others seem to be randomly dispersed. In the lower right corner small speckles of color gravitate toward and buzz around a concentrated cluster of speckles. We are enticed to move closer and to discover more details. Individual bottle tops become recognizable out of a speckled ‘field of pixels' or 'threads in the fabric’. One recognizes and reads the labels "Turn to open" and the names of African high-proof alcoholic beverages that are popular in Ghana or Nigeria where El Anatsui lives and works (KP Beverages, Bacco , etc.)


    As with an impressionist painting, this work enables and requires two different viewing positions: close up and from a distance. Both perspectives tell different stories. In contrast to impressionism, El Anatsui’s stories address political and social issues of highest relevance. From a distance, the rising water level caused by global warming is addressed, to which the title of the work 'Rising Sea' refers. “Reading” from left to right, sculptural folds in the large gray middle area remind us of mighty waves that are in the process of destroying the narrow, speckled strip on the floor that we may associate with human dwellings and their fragile situation. The ‘Silberstreif’ is dwindling and so is hope. Obviously, this meaning is addressed directly and in all clarity.


    The inscriptions on the bottle tops tell another story, the story of alcohol and slave trade during European colonialism in West Africa. Thousands of Africans were sold and taken across the Atlantic in ships to cut sugar cane in the Caribbean plantations to make rum. The rum was shipped to England and then later sold to Africa. Rum with its high alcohol content became another means of dominating an already exploited people. In the course of time, West Africans commonly used rum and other forms of alcohol for libations. However, El Anatsui only uses discarded bottle caps from liquor made in Africa today.


    In turn, the process of 'sewing' the individual metal pieces together is an important, additional cultural-historical referral to El Anatsui’s roots in West Africa where there is a long tradition of weaving colorful textiles.

    The close-up view of “Rising Sea” thus speaks of the past in West-Africa. Whereby the view from the distance, speaks of the future, a future that directly and indirectly affects the world globally. The narrative strands are connected by the idea of upcycling: discarded bottle caps become art, the cheapest material becomes sumptuous beauty, the past becomes present and future, regional colonialism becomes the narrative of a global threat.


    It is important to remember that it is a black artist from Ghana exhibiting this threatening beauty in a space that was built in Munich to serve National Socialist racism. The title of the exhibition 'Triumphant Scale' alludes directly to this context, which Okwui Enwezor, the initiator of the exhibition, was certainly aware of.  The Nazi regime, a regime without scale, built the Haus der Kunst, a building that broke all scales.  El Anatsiu’s magnificent, grand scale triumphs over the excessive Nazi scale.


    Challenging the Western concept of art

    As an artist, El Anatsui is a representative of the Global South as well as of global art. He displays past and present catastrophes in decorative splendor.  We can understand this message through classical analysis and interpretation on the base of the iconography of material and motifs. This system of decoding is familiar to us and confirms our Western expectations of a work of art. However, the simple explicitness of the content of El Anatsui’s work, poses a challenge to Western expectations of open, complex, self-contradicting art.


    According to the latent notion of the community of art experts, if there is a clear content in art it should be as ironic, witty or distanced as possible. Hence, the intrinsic value of art (l'art pour l'art) eludes ideological appropriation and art gives no instructions for action. None of these tenets of Western art is is evident in Anatsui’s work. "Turn to open” with an arrow pointing up or down is the instruction repeated thousands of times in the middle section of “Rising Sea”. The sentence can be read as a directive for us to act on the challenges of our time.


    El Anatsui thus negates the ‘prohibition' of unequivocal, direct symbolism and narration in the Western concept of art and its associated prohibition of politics and agitation. As a global artist, he challenges this concept. In addition, it is interesting to note that El Anatsui, unlike most Western artists, often leaves the responsibility of installing his work in exhibitions to the respective curators. In every exhibition, the same works look a little different, or quite different: folds will fall differently, pieces will be grouped differently and work that has been previously exhibited hanging on the wall may even be presented lying on the floor. With this artistic strategy, he formulates an unmistakable position from the Global South. Thus Western dominance loses its normative power in art and culture in general. The world becomes more diverse and polycentric.


    Learn more about El Anatsui.



    published February 2020


    Two perspectives on one work of art

    In 2019, a large solo exhibition of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, initiated by Okwui Enwezor, took place at Munich's Haus der Kunst. It was the occasion for Patrique deGraft-Yankson and Ernst Wagner to write together about one of the works there. deGraft-Yankson and Ernst Wagner agreed on a parallel writing process in order to minimise any mutual influence of their respective approaches. Thus, they knew nothing of each other's point of view. The resulting texts can be read above.


    The result of this exercise is surprising and fascinating. In some aspects, of course, the interpretations of the work coincided, but in others they differed considerably. What they had in common, for example, was the appreciation of the production process and the impressive effect of material, size and surfaces. Also that the issue of environmental pollution plays a central role in the interpretation of Rising Sea. But it was precisely here that the first differences, even mutually exclusive approaches, emerged: for example, when deGraft-Yankson referred to the sea as a deity, a deity that can sometimes be friendly, but also unfriendly. Understood in this way, the sea in its immediate effect is simultaneously frightening and beautiful, it threatens and at the same time invites aesthetic enjoyment.


    Ernst Wagner could easily relate this aspect to the Western aesthetic of the sublime, however, the difference becomes quite clear when we look at the underlying concept of what an art work is. deGraft-Yankson's text takes the work of art as its point of departure, but it always speaks of the sea itself, while Ernst Wagner always speaks of the work - and not of the sea. This different focus marks a fascinating difference: deGraft-Yankson is concerned with the sea, which he brings to us through his discussion, while Ernst Wagner is concerned with a work of art that simply has the sea as its subject. For deGraft-Yankson, the sea is "in" the work, it is really present. For Ernst Wagner, the sea is a represented motif, it lies "behind" the work, so to speak. It serves as a theme or a point of reference.


    This has consequences for the methodology: while Ernst Wagner delivers an analysis of form, deGraft-Yankson focuses on contextualising the art work; he describes the significance of the sea for the people on the Ghanaian coast today. This difference is probably also due to the different perceptions of what the sea itself is: in his text, deGraft-Yankson speaks of the sea as an independent, souled entity, an acting being or a god that enters into a relationship with people. For Ernst Wagner, the sea - as part of the ecosystem - is also in relationship with humans, but he does not ascribe an independent will to it.


    These different understandings of the relationship between human beings and the world are then echoed in an obviously equally different concept of what art or an art work is. In deGraft-Yankson's text, the work of art, like the sea itself, is charged with energy. The sea appears, as it were in the work, indeed it is present there. In the work, then, the sea materialises as something we perceive directly. In this sense, the work and the sea appeal to us to "preserve it from improper treatment [...] or it will be desecrated."


    This approach of deGraft-Yankson, in which everything interpenetrates, is contrasted with Ernst Wagner's approach, which analytically separates everything: proximity and distance, splendour to be enjoyed and admonition to be taken seriously, discourse on colonialism and ecology, work and motif, art system and ecology, art system and colonialism, and so on. In the end, Ernst Wagner achieves a synthesis, but it only works on a meta-level by addressing the irritation of the Western concept of art through Anatsui's work. An irritation that dissolves or at least relativises the fundamental separation in Western understanding of viewer and object, of sign (the concrete work) and signified (the rising sea), of spirituality and reality, of art and ethics.



    Annette Schemmel, then member of the ISB group, wrote to the the authors in 2020:

    "Dear Patrique, dear Ernst,


    Your texts are a great read and so complementary! For me, writing from Munich, the aspects raised by Patrique have opened up an entirely new reading of this marvellous piece of art, which I was lucky to contemplate at the exhibition of Haus der Kunst. What you're telling about Ghanaians' relation to the sea is unveiling and beautiful, thank you for unfolding these narratives here! Thank you all the more for sharing a piece of local wisdom (how the sea can react angrily) and linking these narratives to the global challenge of saving the sea, a challenge with impacts on localities all over. On another note, the evocation of "Starry Night" caught my eye at once and does make a lot of sense to me. I will be using it in my art classes, if you don't mind.

    Ernst's reading of the piece is much more familiar to me, obviously. He is telling about the context of the exhibition on site in Munich, a context that is so highly charged! When exhibited at this specific museum, Anatsui's work can't but comment on our German history, laughing at its racism by means of its "immoderate" dimensions and calling for a long-due revision of our role in colonialism and in exploitative global circuits of goods like alcohol. It is for this potential of speaking to a place that artworks should always be seen in different locations!

    I would also like to point out that Ernst is exemplifying a familiar method of accessing artworks here, a method that I am happily teaching to my pupils. This method from academic art history wants you to start from close observation and description of formal aspects of the work before risking an interpretation. By means of this strategy arguments about a work of art are meant to become more solid, even if this visible gesture of searching for the right interpretation makes a text less smooth. Thus, Patrique's and Ernst's approaches are totally complementary.

    This said, I am not agreeing with Ernst in the way that "Rising Sea" is explicit in a way that certain Western art lovers might want to criticize. They might, but they would be very wrong. Let me explain: to me, the reproach of explicity rhymes with simplicity and a lack of layerdness. As you both have shown, "Rising Sea" does have multiple layers of possible interpretation and certainly some more, which have not been addressed here. These layers are visible, not only but most clearly, if the work is read against the backdrop of different locales. Artworks from our global age command us to look at them with changing perspectives. If certain Western art lovers can't be bothered to do this, they will forever be missing the point. Their fault. Let me add that you might even spot a good deal of irony in the way that El Anatsui has made this piece outstandingly beautiful, caressing the eye to the degree that every exhibition visitor wanted to take a selfie in front of it, while at the same time pointing to some very painful and threatening truths about today's humankind. Therefore, I would like to uphold that this artwork's relation to the viewers and to its places of exhibition is complex and challenging rather than simple or explicit.