A picture may be worth a thousand words, but paintings can tell a thousand stories. The tales told by those in Tesfaye Bekele’s Lived Thoughts exhibition spark critical questions about contemporary society without uttering a single word.
Set against the sleek, whitewash walls of the Guramayne Art Center, Tesfaye’s 36-piece exhibition commands attention through bold, multi-colored strokes in hues derived from an unusual rainbow. Proverbs are the thread that connects the works together, acting as a historical backdrop and catalyst for discussions about issues that have woven their way into local and international society.
“I believe the proverbs tell a lot of stories and historic relevance. When you look at one of the proverbs or another proverb you have a lot of stories inside,” Tesfaye says. “Most of the paintings talk a lot of layers of stories. Not only just politics, not only everyday life but they tell also history of the world.”
Just as painting is able to communicate messages through images, proverbs are able to convey meaning inconspicuously through metaphors. For Tesfaye, utilizing these thought-provoking sayings allows him to express ideas that may otherwise be troublesome to verbalize.
“The only way to say something, with a proverb is the way, the only thing that saves you or saves your life. You don’t have to say exactly or directly to some history or to some story but in the other round people can understand,” he says.
Tesfaye has been creating art since childhood. Spending time on the ground due to disability, he would observe society and create sculptures out of clay. Going on to study at the Addis Ababa University Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, including completing a Master of Fine Arts, he now teaches at the School and has taken part in many solo and group exhibitions including shows at LeLa Gallery and Circle Art Gallery in Kenya.
Painting is not Tesfaye’s only area of expertise; he produces various art forms including installations, street performances and video art. In the four years it took to mull over the concepts for Lived Thoughts, he experimented with various media before deciding to express his ideas through painting.
“I follow my theme or my idea. I always change technique because sometimes an idea matters to the artwork or to the final product, sometimes it’s not about following a style,” he says. “It is very different because I was looking for the best piece to communicate with the people.”
As a gallery that is dedicated to providing artists with a platform to freely address pertinent issues, Guramayne Art Center is the perfect fit for the exhibition. Tesfaye approached the curator of the Center, Mifta Zeleke, and showed him the pieces he was working on through a studio visit. Mifta was impressed by the critical way Tesfaye was able to explore the interactions that occur within society and address global issues is a very contextual way.
“I was very interested in what he has been instrumenting actually and then how he is making his works different and then giving them a very different dimension. So we decided to make this exhibition,” Mifta says.
Crowned Hopes is the first piece guests are greeted by at the exhibition, hanging as an installation beside the Art Center’s front door. Exploring the theme of the Diversity Visa Lottery, a draw many Ethiopians enter each year to win one of 50,000 immigration visas to the United States, Crowned Hopes casts a critical eye over the application process and the broader social context it reflects.
Lined in rows in the center of the piece are portraits of people sitting for their application picture. They are smiling sweetly, but their bodies are comically distorted due to the awkward angle at which the picture is taken to obtain the desired head shot. Each head is surrounded by a halo, a crown of light, to depict the hope that lies in each of their hearts.
Surrounding the portraits are sentences from the confirmation email every applicant receives. Tesfaye adds a personal touch by including his own name and birth date in the text, creating a direct point of connection with others who have entered the lottery.
“This is [a] kind of lottery that made me embarrassed,” Tesfaye says. “I don’t blame the people because America they are selling their dream through different kinds of medium. Through cinema, through books, through different kinds [of channels]. So the people living here have a dream, a big dream of these wishes.”
Tesfaye turned the hope of receiving a visa into an art piece as an intervention, using humor to give people insight into the reality of entering such a lottery.
For Mifta, it’s the criticality of the ideas combined with the proverbs in Tesfaye’s work that enables the pieces to strongly connect with those familiar with the Ethiopian way of life. In pieces such as The Advent of the Feast, which is based on the Amharic proverb Sergegna Meta, the proverbs act as a point of connection between individual experiences and the state of the nation.
The Advent of the Feast bursts with energy as people are rushing to prepare food for an oncoming onslaught of guests. In the far left panel a young lone figure looks on, bewildered by the chaos before them.
“The irony that [is] utilized in this work is to the burden of the country when we are running, developing, working fast and then there’s the new generation which is really confused,” Mifta says.
Injecting art with multiple layers of meaning may not be strictly unique, but using proverbs as the key to unlock the hidden messages is quite original.
“Every people connected with the issues, even they like how I used the proverbs. I don’t know whether another artist has before used it, but people told me that this is the first time to produce in this way or to hide and expose the wax and gold,” Tesfaye says.
Having hosted over 25 exhibitions at Guramayne Art Center since its establishment in March 2014, Mifta praises Lived Thoughts for being one of the best received. He believes this is due to the deep connections people are able to form with the work due to their personal relationship with the content.
“It has got a very direct relevance to the life that we’re living, to the contemporary life that we’re living,” Mifta says. “It has a very close and direct relevance to issues pertinent in the society so it is of that, I should say, that it is a very critical exhibition.”
According to Tesfaye, it is this power to make connections and expose problems in society which makes art critical in Ethiopia. He is grateful to have a platform such as Guramayne Art Center to exchange ideas with society, but he presses that increased support from the government is required if the arts are to prosper. A strong art industry not only creates stability for artists, but can strengthen the entire community.
“It’s a bridge to communicate with the society,” he says. “Art makes a society one level ahead, to promote the society even. It’s all societies so emphasis should be given to fine art and the galleries.”
Despite the praise he has received for Lived Thoughts, it’s possible a second edition of the exhibition may be held in the future as Tesfaye is eager to go back to the drawing board and see if he can make the messages even more powerful.
“I feel I didn’t get the right medium still, still with the experimentation I kind of try it again because this is not a final, for me. But a lot of people [are] satisfied. For me I have a lot of ideas and experimentations to do it again in another exhibition,” he says.
Lived Thoughts is now entering its final week at Guramayne Art Center with an artist talk being held on Saturday 21st January at 10am to conclude its residency. Given the rich array of messages and meanings hidden upon each canvas, hearing insights directly from Tesfaye Bekele can only add to the already enlightening experience of viewing this revered exhibition.
Ed.’s Note: The writer is on an internship at The Reporter.
By Elyse Wurm