post Contemporary Ethiopian Art

February 19th, 2008

Filed under: Art — Lissan Magazine @ 23:50

Contemporary Ethiopian Art: The New, Exit Generation Artists
By: Esseye Medhin

“My goal is not to be an artist. My goal is to examine complicated feelings.” Daniel Taye, 2000


While many contemporary artists worldwide, particularly those from the southern hemisphere, are showing a fascination with issue-based art, where art, activism and media are fundamentally being intertwined more and more, in the works of new exit generation Ethiopian artists, committed or activist subject matter is missing. Many of these artists tend to get their creative satisfaction from the inherited artistic cocoons and mediums, and from their own artistic enclaves and do not seem to be interested in formulating an existential situation or statement from their social or real life experiences. However, it is believed that they are creating their work not for the benefit of the new generation of technocrats, bureaucrats and ethnocentric individuals. Rather, it is that their oeuvres, as a matter of principle, are directed at these individuals – not to amuse and entertain them but to create malaise and chagrin.

The forces and the mechanisms in the works of some of these artists generally emanates from what they see in Ethiopia: the parade of events such as societal confusion, the AIDS epidemic, poverty, and ethnic conflicts. The artist community as well suffered as much as the rest of society from these events. Many of their classmates, instructors and fellow beloved artists suffered and died during the 1990s and to this day. This situation exasperated and penetrated the minds and the creative spirits of some of these artists, and is transformed into spiritual treasure. Five of the outstanding earliest exit generation artists in the past decade who have come out with their signature styles and thus have gained both artistic and financial success are Daniel Taye, Meseret Desta, Mekbib Gebertsadik, Shiferwa Girma and Fikru G. Mariam.

Daniel, who initially wanted to live in Hammer Bako before he fled Addis Ababa and settled in Washington D.C. — and who in 2000 declared to the whole world that his goal is not to be an artist but to examine complicated feelings — was a highly sought-after society painter. All Addis demanded to be painted by him. At one time, Daniel talks of his dream to change the current building of the Defense Minister into a creative art center right in the center of Addis Ababa. His paintings are derived from live rather than imagined models. They are not the reflection of his external study only, but also reflect his mental pictures. His ability to blend and manipulate color and form ever more expressively through his passion and emotion endows upon his models a piercing look; his several self-portraits are unforgettable images of a suffering artist. His swiftly painted, petrified portraits of artists, authors, friends etc. are unforgiving, questioning, penetrating and analytical.

The artists Meseret and Mekbibe are a couple who live and work in Arlington, Virginia. The neighborhood environments Meseret creates on canvas with bits and pieces of rainbow colors are enchanting and radiant. She forms her tableau in a manner similar to that of most other contemporary Ethiopian women painters. Mekbib can be fully understood with a careful analysis of his vertical and horizontal bold brush strokes. His brilliant strokes are masterly. Figures shown dancing, gazing or doing other activities are usually engulfed with carefully picked colors.

Shiferaw, who lives in Las Vegas, is one of the most brilliant and imaginative painters. He collaborated with several other veteran artists and made a lasting acquaintance with the works of several artists of the 1970s. He meticulously and rigorously triumphs over the teachings of his instructors and has created his own unmistakable style. His fragmented, superimposed, inviting and tantalizing figures and faces seem miniatures against the sweep of the canvas in his semi-abstract and decorative and fantasy paintings; they have the flavor of all that is achieved in Modern Ethiopian art.

Fikru, who graduated from the School of Fine Arts in 1997, and who owns a studio both in Addis and Paris, stole the hearts and minds of his admirers by using what he observed — and distilled to his own advantage — from the works of his instructor. We see in his work the style of Waka, a wood sculpture monument on a gravesite of the Konso and the African masks. His models are mutilated and even shattered, but idealized; they somehow attract the sensibilities.

Just like several other artists of their generation and previous generation, the female models played as object and motivation for many of these artists. Their association of ethnic minorities or women with sensuality or primitive motifs became lavishly visible. It is believed this association is of purely aesthetic necessity. From these new exit generation artists, who have come out with this trend and style include: Abera Mehari, Addis Gezehagn, Assefa Gebrekidan, Baye Lakew, Benyam Eyassu, Bereket T. Michael, Berhan Asmanaw, Berhanu Mekonnen, Bharu Jemal, Daniel Asfaw, Dawit Abebe, Debebe Tesfaye, Elias Sime, Elias Worku, Emac Eshete, Engdaget Legesse, Eyob Tefera, Girma Kifle Meskel, Hailemariam Dendir, Kerim Ahmed, Matewos Legesse, Matiyas Lulu, Mekasha Haile, Merid Tizazu, Merikokeb Berhanu, Mihret Dawit, Mulugeta Gebrekidan, Naizgi Tewolde, Nebyou Tesfaye, Nigatu Tsehay, Seyoum Ayalew, Sisay W Giorges, Solomon Assefaw, Tamrat Fekadu, Tamrat Gezahegne, Teferi Teshome, Tegene Kunbi, Tesfahun Kibru, Tesfaye Legesse, Tesfu Assefa, Wondwossen Beyene,Wondwossen Tadesse, Yared Wondwossen, Yenatfenta Abate, Yohaness Tesfay, Yosef Kebede, Zeinu Mudeser, Zeradawite Abate, Zerihun Seyum, Zerihun Workineh .

In reshaping their future, these artists have chosen a much different strategy and approach than their predecessors. They are successfully entering the millennium due in part to an unprecedented interest in art shown both by younger-generation Ethiopians and by Ethiopians residing and returning from abroad. The number of art dealerships and art galleries provide connections to new clienteles and bring great possibilities to these artists. They are perceptive enough to garner support in order to send out their work for shows or to obtain travel visas. The new, exit generation artists are in a different situation from their predecessors in that they go frequently in and out of the country and are not isolated from the dynamics of art marketing or from current contemporary art world trends.

Just like contemporary artists anywhere, the new, exit generation artists live in a linear art culture. Unlike the era their predecessors lived in, the new generation artists live in an era where every point in the globe is thoroughly interconnected. They will not go on repeating and emulating the visions and experiences of others before them. They simply cannot afford to remain interested only in the aesthetic pleasure that can be derived from their works. Their goal is not to be artists in the traditional sense. It is rather to examine complicated feelings and create aesthetically, socially and technologically meaningful and significant work. As it happens, Ethiopian artists are the least likely to be indifferent to human issues and conditions. It is hard to imagine that their higher levels of education would not have helped them confront the threats facing them and society - become sensitive of human conditions - as opposed to only art in and of itself —the kind of art usually produced now by retirees, housewives, amateurs who fancy themselves as painters, kindergarten children and even four-legged creatures.

Some may argue that committed and activist art — art that convinces, inspires and reminds — will lead to unwanted or even passé forms of artistic expression. But it is also impossible not to believe or suspect that contemporary Ethiopian art helps maintain the status quo by idealizing, mystifying and distorting the facts. Whether contemporary Ethiopian art’s activist commitment is its strength or its weakness is a matter of subjective judgment. It has, however, become an increasingly complex matter, if not pure idealism or wishful thinking. Art, indeed, is not a savior, a redeemer or anything else that has been said about it. If it were so, the millions of iconic and decorative works in the valleys, mountains and plains of Ethiopia would have saved the nation from every catastrophe it has experienced. Beyond and above its intended purpose, ancient Ethiopian art did certainly help alleviate suffering by reaching into hearts and minds with hope and compassion. To believe or hope now that contemporary Ethiopian art can help alleviate suffering, incite action, or awaken, disrupt, provoke or change the public and the authorities perception of life may be valid for the individual artists’ commitment and their patrons.

The art of the 1960s and 1970s of Ethiopian activists and social critics includes subject matter that goes beyond merely the story that the painter wants to tell. They were not illustrations, but art that consciously intended to emphasize the self-respect of Ethiopian men and women, often under deprivation. They suggest much concern for the human condition. To this day, their subject matter and results manage to keep us engaged, and they feel timeless despite the fact that they were painted over 30 years ago. In fact, just like the Zemenay artists — some of the important activist artists of the 1970s showed great creativity in a number of their pictorial devices. Many of their artistic solutions ultimately formed a practical guide and approach for others, including the new and exit generation artists — their students. It now becomes only an afterthought —or even regarded as marginal — it will not be so much because it reflected the horrors of the city, the shabby streets, the famine-stricken mothers and children. Nor will it be for its inferior quality or its passé forms of representation, or because it lacked intellect, continuity or other aesthetic and psychological factors. It is in part because of the influential and overwhelming popularity of the Zemenay formal approach, with audacious concepts and the influence of other, more effective mediums.

Incidentally, what makes the leading Zemenay and their works still significant and important is not their trivial, trendy and ephemeral successes but their character and involvement. They were committed to communicating a philosophical and activist intent, and reflected the Ethiopian spirit aesthetically as well as its political strife. They were never accused or suspected despite their radical theory and involvement by the establishment or the public. Just the opposite; they were acknowledged as heroes by all sides. Even those artists of societies that nurtured all kinds of technological and scientific achievements and those involved and influenced by the ‘isms’ of the last century, the modernists, are acknowledged and admired not for their aesthetic or philosophical approaches alone, but for reflecting their deep-felt concern for the human condition and for their art that convince and inspires.

So far, no one has claimed with certainty if anyone from the new, exit generation has succeeded in making any kind of artistic originality or activist commitment. Perhaps it is that so many cultural activities are more effective in getting more attention, that visual art noise is irrelevant, inconceivable and incompatible in this postmodern flattened world.The major development in the dynamics of the art market is one crucial factor where the new exit generation artists are a step ahead of their predecessors. Without their financial success, none of their achievement would have been noticed. Despite the fact that the buying potential of the Ethiopian public for art is still in its infancy, it seems likely that as we move into the new Ethiopian millennium, these homegrown artists will somehow push and transform their artwork into a breadwinning strategy. No matter what, without effective training in art skills, art theory and art history, any kind of artistic originality is inconceivable.



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    Comment by burgundy — 11. April 2008 @ 08:30

  2. Hi burgundy. It is good to know that you and your friends visit Lissan regularly. We will do our best to keep up our work in order to make your stay here entertaining. Thank you very much for the comment.

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    Comment by Kokebe — 12. April 2008 @ 14:49

  4. This is a great write up. I love the articles I find on this site. The attention to detain is supurb and I value the perspective. Kuddos.

    Comment by Painter — 5. January 2009 @ 21:40

  5. Thank you for the list but how did you select “the five artist”?

    Comment by ezra — 24. August 2012 @ 20:51

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