Bekele Mekonnen, a visual artist, poet, and educator who serves as the director of the modern art museum at the Gebre Kiristos Desta Center and an associate professor of fine arts at the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, recently set up a show at the recently opened Ethiopian Metropolitian Gallery.
The “Gluten Freedom” show examines the connection between Teff and freedom, two concepts that, in Bekele’s opinion, are inextricably linked to Ethiopian culture and history. It also seeks any other potential connections between Teff and Freedom.
By writing a story about a conversation between “teff and freedom” to describe their relationship, Bekele attempted to convey his artistic vision.
Starting off, Freedom greets Teff and compliments it for being the “finest and most mysterious of grains and all food types,” but chides that despite all these years, Teff is still inept for failing to satisfy the owners’ hunger, agony, and sorrow.
Teff, in Bekele’s story, was a mystical grain that our ancestors discovered between weeds and grass. Teff has already spread beyond Ethiopia and is now the most popular grain in the world, available in grocery stores and even online retailers like Amazon. It is also becoming more well known for being healthy and gluten-free.
Teff then goes on to explain to Freedom how it is simple to “see the imperfections of others rather than our own” and how, even though the teff’s contributions were made regardless of its age, it was still able to carry all these people for all these years. However, only certain individuals are fed, while the others are destined to go hungry as a result of freedom’s avarice.
Teff continues by describing how individuals are willing to sacrifice their lives in return for the freedom to live as they like, even though they never actually receive it to the full extent of what they voluntarily paid for it.
People don’t hesitate to fight for their independence, according to Bekele. “We battle, we bleed, we lose everything, we become impoverished, we do everything for the sake of freedom and return home, but we never stop to consider what we will do with it or who will profit from it.”
Bekele discovered that both gluten-free and freedom share the same prefix “free.” We have access to gluten-free food, but because of our continued hunger and poverty, we are unable to freely enjoy it. Freedom is not something we can boast about or something the rest of the world can see as a quality we possess, though.
His story attempts to show how, historically, we came to carelessly uphold one and neglect the other when the two should have been balanced. Bekele believes that art should have its own voice, so he narrates this tale with Teff and Freedom as animated characters. He says that since people loathe getting frank criticism, he uses metaphors in his writing to draw attention to shortcomings. “Because they can relate to the stories and recognize themselves in them, this style is very easy for Ethiopians and people in general to accept,” Bekele claims.
He began experimenting with other materials in his quest to bring this idea to life and discovered that teff was a perfect material to work with because it is sturdy, light, and reminded him of our bodies. There are various statues that represent various situations, with a shield representing freedom. One of the statues depicts a man sitting on a shield to protect himself from ceramic shards that he used to symbolize the flaws in mankind, according to Bekele.
“We are the kind of people that would put buckets at every leak in the roof of our houses rather than fix the holes. With that piece, I intended to demonstrate how we have the mentality to become used to our flaws and our issues rather than find solutions to solve them,” he said.
Bekele says he wanted to demonstrate how often we misuse and underutilize our freedom, despite the fact that we strive and struggle for it every day.