Gestures of Mask-ulinity is a painting exhibition by Kirubel Abebe at Laphto Contemporary Art Gallery in Laphto Mall. Kirubel investigates identity and gender, presenting a version of masculinity that defies stereotypical behaviors of masculinity.
“Masculinity is often associated with behaviors like being tough and aggressive,” says Kirubel, explaining his search for a different kind of maleness.
Kirubel spent three years thinking about the concept of masculinity. “I looked at the time we live in and my own experiences. I thought about this concept for two or three years. It’s a difficult subject to approach without preconceptions. I waited because I wanted to bring honesty to my work.”
This time spent in research and talking to people led him to a discovery of masculinity that he says was outside of the norm. The performance of masculinity itself, a self perpetuating cycle of copying others, carrying out stereotypical attitudes and behaviors of maleness is vicious. The system is propped up by everyone in society, not just men.
“Masculinity is not being a threat; it’s not outside of humanity. I think we’re beyond gender. It isn’t about the body; it’s more than just that. I look towards the future. There’s more we can be. I believe there are kind and gentle people,” he explains.
Kirubel is using these paintings to state that stereotypically masculine behaviors can be a prison. People are more complex than the boxes in which social perceptions of gender place them.
“Masculine force is wanted as protection, as shield but people have a choice. Modern masculinity is about responsibility. It’s being a caregiver. We can be agents of chaos and destruction. We can set off nuclear bombs but we can also grow and nurture each other. It’s about our choices.”
The men in these paintings exist outside of the expectations of gendered performance. They are not wearing the mask of force, aggression, and confidence associated with maleness. They are exposing their vulnerabilities, shying away from the gaze, but still visible.
All the works in this exhibition feature male figures, most with faces obscured in some manner. In The man who covered his face 01 and The man who covered his face 02, the hands covering the figure’s face are visible in large bold brushstrokes. The blending on the edges of the paintings give a dreamlike impression, moving the figure in and out of reality. The figures shift between being hidden from the gaze of others and not being able to look at the world.
In The Virgin, a slender figure sits close to the ground, his face hidden by a light blue fabric. The effect is ethereal.
“Some of these figures are tired. When you can be a beautiful person inside and out, but find yourself stuck somewhere else, it can be exhausting,” explains Kirubel.
Kirubel has evidently spent time studying the body. There is a palpable impression of defeat in some of the paintings in this exhibit.
Contemplating in black and white’s figure is more defeated; the slump in the shoulders, the bend of the fingers speak volumes. In the two paintings titled Stranded, the men are fearful, fatigued, withdrawn.
“Art starts from the individual. It’s my way of working out my relationship with society. My technique came through experimentation and my own perception of art and my understanding of the world.”
Kirubel has found varied responses to these paintings. Some people reacted with shock and confusion at this depiction of masculinity, unable to reconcile the images with their personal perceptions, he explains.
Living in a highly patriarchal society with a strong social fabric can be difficult when exploring a concept and identity that is deemed subversive or unusual is difficult. “Having the time and the ability to think while living in a repressive space is a great opportunity for me. I’m also in the process of taking off my mask. That’s one reason I paint. It’s an antidote. It gives you peace.”
“Being a man and showing vulnerability can be unthinkable in some circles. There are men who can’t even express themselves,” he says with regards to toxic traits of masculinity in Ethiopia. The language to these topics is insufficient for fruitful discussions because a lot of the terms are direct translations from English and developed from Western realities. Kirubel provided us with a visual language of exploring the multiplicities of masculinity in Ethiopia. Creating a vocabulary to make these issues more accessible is necessary if any meaningful change is to take place.
Kirubel was the recipient of the Emerging Painting Invitational Prize in 2020, an international art platform developed by the Emerging African Art Galleries Association (EAAGA) to support and recognise excellence of emerging painters living and working in Africa, along with Eyasu Tilayneh. “The prize has opened doors for me, especially because living in Ethiopia where we’re more removed, we’re in solitary confinement even in relation to other African countries from the international art world.
Kirubel cites his teachers Robel Temesgen, Tadesse Mesfin and Mezgebu Tesema at Ale School of Fine Art and Design as his influences. “There’s something you take from teachers. Their influence has contributed to my work.”
Laphto Contemporary Art Gallery moved from the top floor of the mall to the ground floor in March 2020 and has held exhibitions since relocating but the covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly affected normal operations. Nuru Abegaz’s continued commitment to showcasing the works of young artists and developing the local art scene is commendable.
Gestures of Mask-ulinity is still on view at Laphto Contemporary Art Gallery.