Hailu Kifle’s latest works in Reflections of Seal Stamps are on view at the Alliance Ethio-Francaise exhibition space. Curator Frehiwot Demissie describes Hailu as an experimental artist who has “successfully managed to promote the apprehension of knowledge through his artistic practice and turn seal stamps into a true art form”. Frehiwot also curated his 2019 Adwa Legacy exhibition in Washington DC.
Reflections of Seal Stamps brings two threads of thought into one space. The first, historic seal stamps and their relevance to this day, is a subject Hailu has been studying for several years. These stamps serve as entry points into a deeper study of Ethiopian history and could shed light on the present and allow for fresh imaginations of Ethiopia’s future.
Hailu first introduced audiences to this idea with his final project as an MFA student at Ale School of Fine Art and Design. Reflections of Seal Stamps is evidence of Hailu’s dedicated research into the stamps found throughout Ethiopia’s history and contextualising them into today’s realities. This exhibition contains 34 pieces including mixed media paintings, collages and installations.
Hailu has recreated historical small sized seals on wood in the precision necessary to achieve a realistic mark as well as built large replica installations. One wonders at the people behind the original designs of these stamps and what day to day life must have been for the users beyond the bureaucratic administrative use of official seals. In the standout installation of this exhibition, Dialogue, three large stamps of different political eras face each other.
Hailu is wary of directly announcing his political leanings and this specific installation serves as an invitation to approach his work with openness. The imperial stamp hovering high while the Derg and EPRDF stamps are placed on the ground, however, gives an idea of Hailu’s intentions.
‘Oneness’, a triptych of Emperor Menelik II is one such piece that must be approached with caution due to controversies surrounding the king. In these works, Hailu plays with the hero versus villain narrative, only giving a silhouette of the emperor, first in white and later in black against a fiery dusty background. The curved swords clearly visible in the figurative portrait may seem like horns in the silhouettes.
Reckoning with history can be a difficult task when facts are not clear and reality is contested space. Hailu has found a means to investigate this tenuous past by selecting official seals as an entryway to look at the symbolism embedded in the wooden stamps.
“There’s an Ethiopia I know, an ancient Ethiopia. The one philosophers wrote about. I think we’ve lost a vision of something and it’s what I regret the most. A force of vision of Ethiopia; a union of thought that we’ve lost. I think I’ve brought it here and we can discuss it now. I’m looking back to a time when we were wiser.”
Hailu is the first to admit his interpretation of history can appear optimistic. “I have my own perspective but I know there are ones that oppose it. This might look like fanaticism or romanticising Ethiopia but I have done a lot of research. An artist is not a judge. I’m only looking to start a discussion. My job is to magnify the things I find relevant.” he explains.
Hailu’s bold assertions give insight into his process as a researcher and an artist but his works can be viewed from multiple perspectives. Power is at the center of these artworks. The chair and the ladder, symbolic seat and step to power, respectively, are images that appear often throughout Reflections of Seal Stamps.
Juxtaposing silk screened images of the inauguration of the Organization of the African Union in 1963 with official stamps from Emperor Haile Selassie’s administration and symbols of the emperor’s rule can be a celebration of the pan-African spirit of that time, as Hailu intended. On the other hand, they can be interpreted as the hopes of a united Africa that continues to be foiled through corruption, unrealistic plans and poor implementations and the interference of multiple corporations and foreign bodies.
The second thread in this exhibition is a look into the racial and political intricacies of global travel. The emaciated bodies covered in visa stamps and the passport photo-like images in the ‘Hope and Tragedy’ series are glimpses into the rigorous process of trying to get a visa application approved and the inhuman treatment non-white bodies suffer through the grueling immigration process.
The images of these people, either in profile or frontal view, are arranged in neat columns and rows like a chess board or game pieces those in power can move around on mere whim. Power is the hidden player in the visa series, manipulating the movement of individuals and shaping the future of communities and countries.
Clearly identifiable faces like Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, outgoing US President Trump, and religious figures pepper these checkerboard pieces along with masked figures and the covid-19 virus. Visa applications are investigated through the closing of borders to prevent the spread of the pandemic. The fact that international travel from the global north helped spread the virus to communities that will be affected worse than the west is an issue addressed here. Covid-19 then becomes a tool of furthering inequality and oppression as travel restrictions tighten and undermine the agency of certain communities.
One need not come to a consensus regarding interpretations of these works, or really any artwork. Providing an avenue to numerous perspectives makes visual arts an excellent approach to the minefield of Ethiopia’s past. As Hailu hopes, his works give viewers an opportunity to study the past through his eyes.
The through line he’s created from stamps of the past to visa and postal stamps of the present is not just thematically consistent but offers a symbolic and visual tool to further inquire and analyze history in order to understand and contextualize our present circumstances. Power connects the two threads of thought in this exhibition, illuminating the double bind it creates for individuals and nations and the dubious records left in our rush to move forward.
Hailu is a studio artist and an instructor at Entoto TVET College Fine Art department. His works have been exhibited at the National Museum of Ethiopia, Guramayne Art Center, LeLa Art Gallery and several others as well as abroad in Germany, France, Russia, Italy and many other countries.
Reflections of Seal Stamps is on view at Alliance Ethio-Francaise and will remain open to visitors until February 22.