At an artist discussion on Ethiopian contemporary art at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi this April, Tamrat Gezahegn was asked to describe his practice and process to which he stood up and gave a short performance in response. The performance consisted of him standing up and moving to his bag from which he removed a short phallic scepter and a blue and red fabric traditionally worn by the Massai which he wrapped around himself. He removed his phone from his pocket and held it in his hand then cut off a piece of grass from the ground. He posed for a moment, these items in hand, then sat back down.
Tamrat often inserts performance into his art practice and he’s well known for painting himself green at the opening of his exhibition on the subject of climate change and ecological destruction and his green bicycle is an easily recognizable art object and an instrument in his performances.
The performance at the Circle garden and Tamrat’s extensive work deals with the cohesion and conflict between the natural and the manmade world. He often uses organic shapes and symbols, alongside modern tools to investigate this relationship and form connections of influence, confluence, and struggle.
Performance art consists of various types of activities and is highly influenced by other art practices; it consistently has the elements of time, space, the performer’s body, or presence in a medium, and a relationship between performer and audience. It can be said that it stems from ancient rituals and practices in religions, holiday celebrations, and cultural expressions. Although categorized within the fine art context, Ethiopian performance art is not a carefully studied or documented discipline. And there are some who criticize it for appropriating Western methods to inform Ethiopian creative practices. That claim deserves a lot of scrutiny since what part of modern art practice can be devoid of influences from many sources, and Western culture historically and structurally holds a hegemonic status.
There are very few performance artists many in the local art world dare to mention and of these Ethiopian artists Helen Zeru and Mulugeta Gebrekidan stand out. Helen Zeru’s Memory Back and Forth performance and video installation piece in 2011 explored the relationship between memory, death, the physical body, and the changes it undergoes. Exhuming her mother’s bones from Yoseph Church, Helen contemplates the passage of time and the memories of her mother while lying in the empty grave wrapped in white gauze. Helen is continuing to create courageous, critical, and highly personal work and has completed her masters in Art Praxis program 2015-2017 at the Dutch Art Institute in Arnhem, the Netherlands.
Mulugeta Gebrekidan, a multimedia artist trained in painting, performed Filling the Gaps (2013) that took place in public spaces such as roundabouts and squares of Addis Ababa as part of Neta Art Village’s Wax and Gold Project. His performance protested Mengistu Neway’s (famed instigator of the 1960’s coup d’état) place of execution occupation by a clock tower erected by the Samsung conglomerate at the Teklehaimanot roundabout. A gold-painted Mulugeta garbed in Ethiopian patriot’s clothes, holding golden spear and shield stood still at the tower and confronted government institutions for the misuse of a historic public space. These performances attempted to reclaim these public spaces and create a dialogue on social issues, culture, history, and identity.
Yohannes Mulat’s Inverted Echo (2015) is an art performance that took place in one of the crowded streets of Addis where pedestrians bargain either to buy or to sell items or currency (obsolete Ethiopian currency or other) that they believe to be worth 10 Ethiopian Birr. Yohannes held up a box full of 10 birrs and random objects and yelled ’10 birr ale (there’s 10 birr here)’ like one of the many street hawkers that throng Arat Kilo. This project was designed to demystify currency and trigger thoughts about the value of these notes especially regarding the nostalgic or sentimental value assigned to old notes regardless of their practical economic power.
Yoftahe (Happy) Manyazewal although not trained as a traditional artist had a project entitled Rejection Challenge/Escape the Comfort Zone (2016). He wanted to challenge accepted rules of social engagement and public interaction, thereby breaking the norms instilled within an individual. This project, launched in collaboration with Abel Desta and Tigabu Habte forced the participants to confront their fear and thoughts preventing them from doing certain things. This included knocking on people’s doors and inviting people to go outside and play football, offering to make their own tea in cafés, lying on the ground in the middle of a busy street for a few hours, and offering free hugs to people.
Performance art has wider implications when looking beyond the subjectivity of public performances. Yoftahe’s experiment lying on the ground in front of the exhibition center around Stadium received varied responses. While some gleefully wanted to join him, others offered him alms thinking he was homeless or psychologically damaged and some who recognized him walked by without acknowledgment. Yoftahe says fear of others’ opinions or yilugnta, a specifically Ethiopian social setback for many, prevents people from chasing their dreams. The threat of social pushback or ostracism is another way people are imprisoned.
Some attribute the small number of performance artists to the lack of knowledge or exposure to the art. Yohannes says the lack of a performance school or performance as an integrated part of a curriculum results in very few artists practicing performance art. Most performance artists are trained as painters, sculptors, or actors. He himself received his BA in painting from AAU’s Alle School of Fine Arts and Design and completed his MFA at the Academy of Contemporary Art and Creative Writing, University of Tromsø, Norway.
Bekele Mekonen, Assistant Professor at Alle School of Fine Art and Design, says there is no performance art curriculum at Alle School of Fine Arts and Design. There are seminars and discussions on the topic but it is not institutionalized.
Another one of Helen’s performances Back and Forth 2 had her covered head to toe in white linen walking around Berlin carrying a red umbrella. In an interview with the Reporter in 2016, Helen said the performance was staged in Berlin because she was fearful of doing it in Addis. The public feedback can be mixed. Bekele attributes this to the conservative nature of Ethiopian society. “Few artists daring to challenge the status quo” and many are fearful of asking the necessary questions performance art attempts to pose to society. In literature, theater and music artists convey messages indirectly, especially using satire or riddles to voice unpopular opinions or protest certain issues. Bekele says, “joyful or intellectual protest has no acceptance” in a highly secretive and uncommunicative community. Performance art is typically direct and confrontational; it asks the viewer to re-think perceptions and challenge convention.
It is also difficult for performance artists to present their works, says Bekele, because there is no platform and there is limited awareness of the art form. When Netsa Art Village launched the performance Moving Society in 2014, organizer Mihret Kebede had to register their project as a circus act and exhibition when city officials did not understand what performance art was.
Yoftahe insists creating an environment that allows free expression is fundamental in unlocking personal and cultural possibilities. One of his challenges was to offer free hugs to people around the city, a perfectly ordinary act anywhere else in the world, but one that resulted in a confrontation with police officers leading to his arrest.
Bekele says many artists self-censor fearing government reprisal. Installing policies and government-funded programs that nurture the arts is a surefire way to increase public awareness of the arts and create opportunities for artists to express themselves.
“Since we don’t have a performance school or performance as integrated part of a curriculum in existing school, at some level it will affect its existence in the art scene,” says Yohannes.
Another key problem is that performance art is hard to commodify. The performance might be expensive to stage and has no real income for the artist. Internationally, institutions and collectors buy the rights to stage performances. In the emerging Ethiopian commercial art market there are few commercial art galleries and even fewer art buyers. Expecting art lovers to purchase an idea or a performance piece can be wishful thinking.
However, the importance of performance art to making public statments on the state of the nation, the social fabric, the environment, the human condition are necessary and urgent. It is an art practice that demands direct engagement between artist and audience, blurring the lines between the two and occuring outside of the restrictive, commericalized and often elitist space of white cube galleries. Artists will likely continue to demand the platform for this but a supportive ecosystem is important and this can only come from government support, as with many issues within the creative sector.
A version of this article first appeared in the April 2018 version of the newspaper. Some elements have been updated for clarity and relevance.