Versatility in the visual arts makes one of the experimental artists, Elizabeth Habtewold, a gifted and talented one. Her current exhibition, entitled “Erasen Be Ras,” staged from April 21 to May 21 at the Modern Art Museum: Gebrekirstos Desta Center, is a testimony to that.
Seeking inspiration from sources as diverse as indigenous plants like enset and koba, photography and computer-generated animation, her work defies the limits of the medium. Redefining the concept of articraft such as matot, the photography and animated videos create a mesmerizing harmony. Her exhibition begs a question on the linear notion of time; putting everyone in the circular definition of time.
Rejecting to be confined to a medium, Elizabeth raises the concept of memory, femininity, modernism, nature, violence, and many other layers. That versatility also enabled spectators to decode the brilliance of the artworks. Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Elizabeth studied painting at the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design and graduated in 1985. She moved to the USA in 1987 and studied graphics at the Baltimore City Community College. Later on, she joined Howard University and received MFA in painting in 1993. A humble artist, Elizabeth has been living in Addis Ababa since 2001, and has been fully involved in the flourishing art scene here. Some of her compelling artworks include Africa Rising, a mirror mosaic installation currently displayed at the African Union and a video documentation of Ethiopian women artists. Her artworks also have a presence on the international scene in venues such as the Parish Gallery, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, and the Samuel P. Harn Museum. Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter caught up with Elizabeth to discuss her recent exhibition and her overall involvement in the Ethiopian art scene. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Your recent exhibition is entitled “Erasin Be Ras”. Is it because of the indigenous medium you used koba (false banana) and enset (Enset ventricosum) or is it about topics you raised memory, femininity?
Elizabeth Habtewold: This exhibition covers many layers and transcends various issues. The first thing is it touches on being self-sustaining, being independent. If one takes the medium, enset, in a literal form, it is an indigenous and extremely hardy and versatile crop, which is also highly nutritive.
While the plant is extremely valuable for food security, enset, is more than just food; the fibrous leaves and stalks are used for the production of clothing, shelter and basket as well as for ceremonial purposes. Enset is something we treasure and it is like a non-ending valuable treasure that nature provided us. If we understand the true value of enset, it can save us from hunger, poverty and from destitution. Therefore, the concept goes to a metaphorical explanation of how we can be self-sustaining. This is ours and we should benefit from what is ours.
In the art talk that was held at the Modern Art museum, many points were raised on how this exhibition raises issues of femininity, memory, repetitiveness, life, violence and production of knowledge. What is the center and how does the medium interact with the concept it raises?
There is always a question about medium. It is not only the narrative, the story that matters but the medium is very crucial in activating history. Therefore, medium and the process of the art has been my contemplation for so long.
When I leave early in the morning to drop my children to school, workers are busy sweeping the streets, which is a bit exciting. Shortly, all this changes and my neighborhood again changed into a dumpsite. This always puzzles me. I clearly understand this does not change in a day; it rather requires a deep behavioral change.
Thinking about a solution to this, I was recently researching more about biomimicry. Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks a sustainable solution to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes and polices – new ways of living that are well adapted to life on earth in the long term. The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. So, during my research, I found about lotus or what is termed as the lotus effect of self-cleaning that are a result of ultra-hydrophobicity. For thousands of years animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers as opposed to humans who are struggling to survive in a decent manner. Humankind thinks it is smart but cannot even know how to deal with such mundane issues like waste management.
Amidst of this I also went to around the Guraghe area and I witnessed the process of making carpet from enset. It is a labor-intensive work. Coming back to Addis and having taken an inspiration from the lotus, I started cleaning my compound, and in the process transforming some objects into useful ones. That is how the inception of matot (a circular band of a straw stand which is used as a stand for the coffee pot to settle) came about. Metaphorically, matot is our foundation and a seat for delicate material. The process of making matot – its repetitiveness – represents the vicious circle of life. In addition to that, it also gives a lesson on working tirelessly, developing a habit of work and perfection. The shape of the matot, which is circular, also represents life, feminine spirit and unity.
All humans carry an element of the feminine that is wisdom, rationality and compassion, which is often forgotten. I am not talking about being a man or a woman, rather the feminine element that does not spoil for a fight.
In this exhibition, there is a matot, new media, photography and all the interaction of media addresses various issues of resilience, indigenous knowledge, tolerance, unity and a host of other issues.
In the past, ordinary people owned the means of production for making their own outfits, food and much more. In this age, products of one’s labor can change hands thanks to the invisible hands of the market. Can the medium be taken as a way of reclaiming one’s own production?
Yes, definitely. Going to visit a relative, I saw various dantel (crochets), with a vibrant color and a mesmerizing harmony between the threads. Our mothers were creators of this art and they used this as decorative materials. This harmony represents how women played a vital role in bringing the family together. Within my computer-generated animation work, I use a technique of inverse where water drops spill and come back to the leaf. There is a common Amharic saying I like which goes, “ Yefesese wuha ayitafesim,” (There is no point crying over spilt milk). Therefore, I manipulated the technique in the animation and the spilled water is back. This can be a lesson in trying to tackle something formidable, and to claim what is ours.
Through the modernization process, the Global South is becoming a consumer and fast catching up with the west. A Eurocentric model influences most of our value system. Is this work a resistance to that trend?
Yes, it is. Metaphorically, that is what the enset is all about; looking into ourselves and looking for a solution to our problems. We cannot afford to do art merely for a decorative purpose; rather for me it is to address societal issues, to critique it and also to offer a solution. There is always a blurred line between art and artifacts but I am claiming this is an art. In this globalized day and age, there is an assimilation process, which is swallowing us. Everything is standardized but the question is what is Ethiopian? Whose standard is it? What is ours?
Talking about nature and learning about a coping mechanism from it, there is a quote by the famous scholar and activist Angela Davis that “We all have an ideological relationship to the world.” So, what is your ideology?
Let us mimic nature. Not the literal mimicking of nature; rather the function. For example, the spider makes a web in its surrounding so if we mimic that, we can look for a solution from our surroundings. Right now, we are actually going against nature – polluting, cutting trees and creating toxins. We are destroying nature and that has an adverse effect on us. Therefore, for me, the lotus leaf cleaning itself is symbolic for me. The property of the leaf fascinates me and I draw inspiration from that.
While using enset and koba that existed in the past and in the present, your medium is versatile; you also use photography, animation and visual art in general and new media. How does this help you in your art?
Technology fascinates me. It just reminds of the resistance and rejection Gebrekirstos Desta faced when he came up with abstract expressionism. His response to his detractors was, “We should be in tune with the prevailing trends.” It is inevitable; we cannot escape or hide from technology. For me, technology is a tool, another medium, which I can manipulate to produce my works. After obtaining my masters from Howard University, I was offered a job at a school I went to previously – Baltimore City Community College – and I taught there for five years. It was a bit slow for me. While teaching was a valuable experience for me I wanted to go explore technology in order to incorporate it in my art. I actually taught myself and immersed deeply in this field. I grab any opportunity that comes my way and try to update myself by taking crash courses, even taking YouTube video tutorials.
In 2000, I also studied interactive multi-media for a year at George Washington University. This entire medium facilitates and amplifies things I want to transmit. In the video at the exhibition, a scene depicts a shredding of koba tree. This effect was achieved using various software programs. It gives the effect I want, such as slow movement, reverses and fast. In the video, a screeching sound of shredding of the koba was able to create a discomforting sensation and that was the purpose. This was pain and some people interpreted it as trauma, violence and rape. The medium highly helped in this.
This enables us to create a marriage between old materials and new ones so we can be able to produce art pieces that we aspire.
Let us go back in time, how did you get into art?
When I was in Menen School, one of my art teachers was the prominent Ethiopian calligraphy artist Wosene Kosrof. He used to encourage us and told us about the existence of the art school. During that time, finishing eighth grade can qualify one to enroll in the art school. Therefore, when I finished the eighth grade, I went with a couple of friends to register and I took summer courses. My parents were not thrilled with my decision, and insisted on my completing 12th grade first. I attended the summer classes, finally, and I joined the art school, and I graduated in painting. It was a memorable time and one of my highlights was the fourth year when instructors such as Tadesse Mesfin came back from Russia. It was a new and overwhelming spirit. We were required to do up to 60 sketches per day. We spent most of our time in churches in search of live models. We tried to capture the spirits of people who were praying solemnly. Again going back, this was a time of repetition and I actually used these paintings in later life as part of a collage.
This is one of my inspiring and happy places. Even after graduation, we used to spend our time in the university. We even go there weekends.
Some women artists claim facing sexism at the art school. What is your response about that?
We were expected to put in a little bit of effort, but I was not singled out. There were sexist remarks such as commenting on how our stroke looks like a man’s but I do not think it was that hostile. There was too much of a sense of humor at the art school, and that is my highlight.
What was your inspiration back then?
My inspiration is always my surroundings, society, the culture, and the custom that embeds it. My graduation work focuses on the Gurage dance during Meskel (the Finding of the True Cross) celebration. There were artists whose work focused on the exploits of Emperor Tewodros and the broader subject of nationalism. All in all, the central figures of my artwork are people.
You were enrolled in one of the historically black colleges, Howard, and how did that experience shape you in understanding race and other issues?
I first joined Baltimore City Community College. My sisters were also Living in Baltimore. I do not know what to call it maybe it is a shock but I could not do painting for some time. When we were in art school, we used to do a lot of landscape; and in America I missed all that. I joined to study graphics art even if I want to study fine art it was expensive. So the proximate subject I found was graphic art. Even in America, at the time, you got to be financially able to attend art school or to buy any art supplies. After two years of stay there, I joined the University of Maryland. During my stay, I found a visiting professor from California who followed the style of what I know from art school. I took a course with her and so that rekindled my passion of doing my art. It was a predominantly white university even in modern art history class, there was no single black artist mentioned. It was a white institution, aesthetics, and knowledge production. After one semester, I met an artist named Feleke Armide and he told me I could do my masters at Howard. After completing one semester at Maryland University, I went and joined Howard University. Fortunately, Eskunder Boghossian paved a way for us. He is really loved and respected by many in the university. He was very famous. Honestly, Howard is a different world. I went from Ethiopia but I understood I did not learn anything about African art. It was shameful but ironically, we knew about Picasso. It was a deconstruction of modern art and we extensively took courses on African art. Our studies included the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, and freedom fighters such as Marcus Garvey featured prominently in our courses. These courses were helpful in introducing us to such figures as W.E. B. Du Bois and Alain LeRoy Locke. It was an eye-opening experience. Howard made us know and regain our self-worth as African, black artists. We already knew about Henri Matisse but it was during my Howard stay I learned that he took inspiration from Ethiopian traditional painting. My advisor at Howard, Professor Al Smith, exposed me to a lot of books and style such as fractal theory and about rhythms. The Western label of African art as “primitive” is meant to downgrade it. Nevertheless, African art makes the head bigger because the head (spirit) is more important than the body. It was a regaining of our pride, our self-worth. It still puzzles me that with the wealth of knowledge that we produced, how we do not teach our own indigenous knowledge.
How did this affirmation change you?
Though I am astonished by their work ethics America (the West) is a different place. It is dominated by consumerism. Growing up, the very crucial thing for me was humanity more than gadgets. During my stay in America, this original value system was not shaken up. It was still in me. My work also aims at criticizing, and is an attempt to destabilize the consumerism culture using collage.
The African-American collage artist Romare Bearden inspired me to do collages then. I actually incorporated sketches from the churches I did back when I was in Addis Ababa to say that there are things we should value more than gadgets. That piece was called “The Forgotten Sours” and was exhibited at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. In addition to that, I also did a piece, entitled “Lonely Mother,” to show the displacement of my mother in America. When my mother was with us back in the 1990s, there was a language barrier; she used to spend the whole day confined in an apartment. Now, it is a different story because there is a vibrant Ethiopian community. But back then, it felt like a prison for someone who did not speak English. Coming from Ethiopia and losing a strong, social support system can make one question one’s sanity.
After you came back, how is your participation in the contemporary art scene?
After my return here I staged a couple of exhibitions including at Parish Gallery in America. My first exhibition in Ethiopia was in 2007 at Asni Gallery. After that I had multiple exhibitions at various venues. One of my exciting works was in 2013 at the African Union, formerly the Organization of African Unity, 50 year’s anniversary. It was a sketch of a woman I did at Howard University and she was in a rush representing to push forward progress. This woman figure reappears in my later works, such as in the AU with mirror work and in my recent work with animation. It becomes multiple figures without considering each other as a stepping-stone, but rather going together. As a public art, we did also mosaic for Desalegn Hotel. Therefore, I am inspired by everything and I strictly follow my passion.
Tell me more about the documentary, entitled “Her Voice”. Many women artists after graduation get married, and they do not continue with their career; it is rather interrupted. How important was that in the making of the documentary?
This is a raw capturing of moments of women artists narrating their stories. Some of them are self-taught who get questioned about their lack of credentials. There are mothers who are raising children and fully working as an artist. How do they manage that, the challenges they face. It is very powerful. Genet Alemu, an artist who passed away recently talks about spiral, and how women are in constant motion. The documentary is one of the most important works I did.
What do you aspire to accomplish in the future?
I still want to do the searching, learning and doing my art. With the documentary, “Her Voice” I did the stories of seven women artists. I also recently added three more artists. I want to continue doing this and archive men artists who are married to women artists and the dynamics of their relationship.