El Anatsui has become well known for his wall-sized tapestries made out of metal strips, milk can lids, and bottle caps. This work represents important earlier explorations for the artist. These wood pieces are made of repurposed wooden slats, playing with ideas of death and rebirth, which are recurrent themes in Anatsui’s work. The carved symbols are a fusion of different indigenous African styles of script that El Anatsui has studied extensively. “Somehow I felt the need to answer an allegation that Africa does not have a tradition of writing.” In this way, When I last wrote to you speaks to rich African cultural and historical traditions. It also comments on the relationship between Africa and the rest of the Western world.
The entire process of producing his wood panel pieces is heavy with symbolism. Anatsui describes the variety of wood types and colors as representing the diversity of Africa. The action of carving the wood with a chainsaw represents violence and rupture in the history of Africa, while burning the cut lines with a torch “civilizes” this “savagery,” though it also suggests the injuries of colonial rule.