Zelalem Merga’s recent exhibition at the famed Guramayne Art Center escapes the bounds of the white walls, extends into the lovely garden, and transforms every inch available into a kaleidoscopic reflection of his home studio.
Zelalem, or Zola, as he’s affectionately known in his circle, has been making art since graduating from Ale School of Fine Art and Design at Addis Ababa University. Although he was trained as a painter, he’s devoted a lot of his time to experimenting in various mediums and his works indicate this experience.
There is a level of control and utter madness in his method. He’s written his own poetry on large 3+ meters of paper alongside rap and reggae lyrics he listens to as he’s painting. And despite the overload of information, these works are coherent. There is a theme of conservation and preservation of nature, a call for freedom and emancipation, and undeniable love for art.
This exhibition included some works that served as odes to artists he admires. Basquiat, Klimt, Mondrian, and Pablo Picasso are a few of the many artists whose works have been impactful to him; influence, he says, that unconsciously seep into his practice.
Zelalem has converted one of the smaller rooms of the gallery into what could be described as a studio. An easel, a collection of canvases against the wall, a row of shoes in the corner, boxes, and some fabric are strewn across the room. CDs and records are on a shelf and small plants hang from the ceiling. Zelalem has invited visitors into his process. He’s welcoming an audience not just to his paintings but to his aesthetics, his identity as an artist.
There is an element of play to Zelalem’s paintings. There is a child-like abandon and an experimental approach that is exhilarating. In ‘Dread Abeba’ (dread flower), Zelalem shows his relationship with art in the form of a self-portrait. Adorned by the kaleidoscopic use of words, shapes, and colors, his works are exciting and fun. They intrigue the viewer at first glance and reveal a world of his own making within and it’s a pleasure to revel in it.
Zelalem says the shortage of material led to him recycling random objects into art resources. He’s worked with cassette tapes, corks, circuit boards, and several discarded items he finds and collects in his studio. Some of these works are figurative, portraits of famous and recognizable people who are attractive to mainstream buyers. This exhibition is Zelalem’s first one in 4 years, as he was only showing in art fairs and bazaars, places that attract more mainstream buyers.
He describes his process as both planned and spontaneous. He might approach a painting with a sketch at hand but he’s often inspired by music or poetry and adds those elements to his canvas.
Zelalem found the COVID-19 lockdown conducive to his practice. “Not moving around much helped me produce more. I felt I returned to myself. I have been experimenting with other mediums and been away from painting for a while. Looking at the world situation, corona, Black Lives Matter, the protests here and elsewhere, listening to music, all of those combined to create this,” he explains.
“I want to create a feeling. A painting never feels finished to me. I want to reflect on what I’m thinking, and feeling. It’s a process.”
This exhibition wasn’t just limited to paintings on canvas. Zelalem had taken over the modest outdoor area of Guramayne by bringing over his furniture, wood pallets painted in his signature style, and other things he made while staying at home.
This show featured new pieces that feel like love letters to Addis Ababa. Zelalem had collected antique maps, often from the sprawling Merkato market, and made slight alterations. “There have been a lot of changes in the city. A lot of destruction. Maps are a way of finding connections. Putting them in a frame on a wall gives perspective,” he explains.
These relief maps juxtaposed by the ordered chaos of his color application are gripping. He’s tracked the changes of the city, framing the history and contouring the stages of its metamorphosis.
“City life can be corrupting. Living in the forest simplifies your life. It comes naturally to me to plant trees and garden.”
His studio at Entoto used to be more remote but the new park inside the forest has attracted more city folk. He’s also found this led to more pollution to this typically clean area. He’s found means to collect plastic bottles and other recyclable waste along with local teens and began art projects within the community.
This work is not done alone. As with many of his projects, Zelalem collaborates with his wife Shewit, an artist in her own right and co-founder of social enterprise Deug 27 focused on providing pan-African education in the Bela area. Artmaking is a big part of this project, and both Zelalem and Shewit engage the students in upcycling and repurposing material into art.
The studio space in Entoto has grown beyond Zelalem and Shewit and become a working space for two other artists. They are hoping it will grow into a residency space for young artists in search of a studio and the structure working with full-time artists provides.
“You have to pay your dues, make the necessary sacrifices. Life takes you to the next step. I’m getting better as an artist.” And this exhibition is clear evidence of that.