Abstract art uses a visual language of shape, form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world. For centuries, Ethiopian art has been dominated by Ethiopian Orthodox Church iconography. However, the status quo, through the course of time, changed and art—especially paintings—started to show alternative ways of describing visual experiences, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.
Golgotha is believed by many to be Gebrekristos Desta’s masterpiece. The painting depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in a very unique way. It is also deemed to be a thought provoking experimentation of Gebrekristos, who was also a poet and considered to be the father of modern Ethiopian art.
For the naked eye, Golgotha represents the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in red. However, this painted is a radical shift from the depiction of the crucifixion as presented by Ethiopian Orthodox Iconography; which frequently illustrates inner peace and consolation.
Elizabeth Woldegiorgis (PhD), art historian and director of the Modern Art Museum Gebrekristos Desta Centre, in her 2010 dissertation presented to Cornell University in 2010 describes the painting as an art that shows the agony of Jesus Christ.
“He defies this concept in Golgotha as if to intentionally deconstruct the Orthodox mythology. In this painting, there is no edification, no peace, no contrition, and no hope; there is only despair as if the death of Christ imitates ordinary human death,” reads the dissertation.
Gebrekristos is one of the leading figures in interdisciplinary experimentation in the arts and also in introducing and pushing the discussion on non-figurative art in Ethiopia.
According to the dissertation, during his twenties, which was in the 1950s, Gebrekristos’ early works revolved around reflecting on societal issues such as poor families, beggars, and the faithful. His “methodological shift”, according to Elizabeth, is witnessed after he went to Germany where he was highly inspired by German expressionism style where he challenged the idea of imitating reality. Eventually he immersed himself in German expressionism.
“He used bold lines, vivid colours, distorted images, incisive self-portraits, chaotic urban scenes and joyous landscapes,” Elizabeth writes.
It is not only Golgotha; rather, his artworks such as “Green Abstract, Blue Abstract” deeply explored abstraction and used a circle as a metaphor of infinity.
When asked what the circle meant to him, Elizabeth quoted Gebrekristos Desta who said, “The circle is infinite and unending. It symbolizes the hemisphere and heavenly bodies. It is in line with the search for a solution in life, when it frequently happens that one may believe he has reached the optimum solution only to find that the search must continue; a perfect solution remains forever elusive.”
This introduction of modernism and abstract art was not seen lightly. In a recent panel discussion on abstraction at the Goethe Institut, which was part of Julie Mehretu’s exhibition, Elizabeth presented a paper entitled “Abstraction and Ethiopian Modern Art”. She says that he pushed his works against all the odds. “At a time when abstract art was foreign to many Ethiopians, he insisted that abstract art form, mirrored a much desired modern awareness,” Elizabeth says.
The paper highlights that the broader public was detached from his work because it was completely different from the “visual expression it was used to” and the newness of the modern visual art contributed to the rejection.
Elizabeth notes that his artworks faced harsh criticism and condemnation and she cites a newspaper article, which “accused him of abandoning traditional Ethiopian themes after coming back from Germany attacking his immersion with a foreign art form that was difficult to understand.”
He could no longer ignore the criticism of “betraying his roots” where he was forced to defend his stance.
This was in late 1960s and after five decades, one of the highly publicized art exhibitions, “The Addis Show” by Julie Mehretu, showcased 17 pieces of her large-scale multi-layered works. One of the leading painters of her generation, Julie’s works draws inspiration from Italian futurists, Russian constructivism, abstract expressionism and eastern calligraphy.
This exhibition was a source of inspiration for artists to have a conversation on artistic practices. It was also a platform for various discussions on abstraction and its forms.
A couple of days after the opening of the exhibition, a local Amharic magazine published a feature article criticizing Julie Mehretu’s style of painting. The article goes to the extent of mocking abstract art. “Abstract art form is a hidden mechanism and an escape method for artists who cannot engage their idea in a realistic way,” the article reads.
This statement draws its conclusion from the understanding of abstraction from the larger public’s point view. The broader public understands abstract art as an art form that is vague, obstructed and is some sort of a code among abstract artists.
In some exhibitions, it is common to hear various descriptions of shapes and figures by audiences of an artwork.
It is not only the larger public that fails to understand abstraction. In many instances, professional artists seem to fail in that area. So the question is, why all this confusion since the concept was entertained five decades ago? In fact, it was not only Gebrekristos who worked on abstractions. Skunder Boghossian, is the other artist who is referred to as the “avant-garde modernist”.
“By incorporating visual motifs and objects from classical West and Central African art in his paintings, he presented a pan-African perspective in Africa’s contribution to modern and contemporary art, with the full meaning of selfhood with an attempt to follow the complex narratives of the independence movements of the appropriation, rejection and permutation of diverse experiences and cultural contexts,” Elizabeth says.
The term abstract art is broadly defined as “non-objective art” or “non-figurative art” which gives an umbrella for artists to re-define it and practice it in various forms.
The former director of Ale School of Fine Arts and Design, Berhanu Ashagrie, defines abstraction, as “One of the different ways and forms of dealing with a content of a subject in the arts, but not a content or a subject by itself. It is rather a process than an outcome,”
For instance, an artist, who actively engages in the changing landscape of Addis and various societal issues, uses various forms of multi-disciplinary creative approaches.
The artist’s creative art practices vary in different forms and on various levels. For instance, it can be determined by the use of technological materials, as well as the public space that is used to interact with the community.
For Berhanu, the forms and mediums of art are wider in the context that makes him question the idea of people’s assumption of abstraction art. The larger public deem that art is is highly connected to the traditional art forms, which are painting and sculpting. However, for him, contemporary art is defined by abstraction.
“When one talks about ‘abstract art’, the question is, what has been abstracted and through which medium and on what level? I personally think there is no such thing as an abstract art or abstract artists nowadays. Instead, I would prefer to state that there are different forms of artworks that contain various levels of abstraction,” Berhanu says.
His use of abstraction is ever evolving and uses various levels of abstraction using various themes and mediums.
Though many try to label their artworks as “abstract art” he contests this idea by saying, “In one way or the other, abstraction has always been there in the creative production processes of any periods in different levels and conditions, but it has a different context, value, and meaning when an artist use abstraction consciously through artworks.”
Mihret Kebede, a prominent contemporary artist who is renowned for her menstrual blood painting works, also agrees with Berhanu.
Mihret did not intend to work on “abstract art” or follow it throughout her journey. “Abstract art has been an additional element and information to combine and experiment with different art forms,” she says. “One might see some forms and shapes in my work that directs the interpretation of the work depending on the visual experience of each spectator. That is a connection,” she elaborates.
In her recent series works, “Dancing Her Revolution”, or her famous works “Slow Marathon”, which engages relationships, geography and political borders, she uses various forms of abstraction.
Mihret is a versatile artist who uses various mediums of expression such as threads, shoelaces, photography, video and performance.
Nowadays, artists experiment on various concepts and combine various concepts to give a relevant expressionism form. Styles such as afro-futurism are now taking center stage. Afro-futurism combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, afro-centricity and magic realism of non-western cosmologies to re-define and re-imagine it for an alternative future.
Recently, Robel Temesgen, a contemporary artist showcased his art piece entitled: “Another Old News” in Berlin at Akademie Der Kunste. In the past couple of years, many publications have been barred for inciting violence, being unconstitutional and for using false information.
Consequently, many journalists have been jailed and prosecuted while others have been exiled. In this piece, Robel revisits these publications in a handwritten format. In this archival piece, he explores the idea of abstraction with temporality, space and language.
Robel is known for various levels of abstraction by using installations, video arts, and public performances. In one of his acclaimed exhibitions “Adbar” at Tiwani Contemporary in London, he explores the theme of “Adbar”. Adbar is an abstract word used to describe the embodiment of protective spirits within various elements of the natural landscape such as lakes, mountains, rocks or trees. Adbar serves many communal purposes most notably as a place for prayer, a meeting point for rituals and offerings and a space for holding discussions.
Using paintings, he interconnects the idea of reawakening faded rituals, protectorate spirits, the metaphoric usage of prominent individuals and communal spaces. Now he uses various levels of abstractions in his own terms. He says that he still understands the gap that exists among the community and also among the artists when it comes to understanding abstraction.
“Great parts of society see abstraction as a code among artist. They comment that it is an art form that is only understood by painters,” Robel says.
In addition to that, he does not hide the fact that many artists associate abstraction with “advancement” or “sophistication”.
For Mihret, all this emanates from the general understanding of the basic concept of art in Ethiopia. She says that this is caused by the lack of strong art education system, lack of discourse regarding art and lack of formal and informal platforms of discussion.
In that regard, many say that, art and society are detached from the one another. The general notion is that art is considered as “elitist”, “vague” and for a “closed community”.
In addition to that, Mihret also says that it has got to do with the value system that is given to the arts and humanities by stakeholders.
Putting freedom of practice in mind, Berhanu says that it is natural when there is more abstraction used in the artwork, which, according to him, is one of the reasons it creates more distance with the audience.
“The very important challenge is, what level of abstraction is needed on a particular subject, content or context,” he says, adding that the Ethiopian society has a very limited visual culture or experiences and is still not widely exposed to the different forms of creative languages, mediums, and approaches. “Therefore, adding more and more abstraction can possibly limit the level of understanding,” he says.
For all three artists, being enrolled at the Ale School of Fine Arts and Design provided them with the opportunity to explore the idea of abstraction and various art forms. However, Berhanu says that the courses were not adequate enough to deeply understand the context.
Even if that was the case, they pushed in knowing more about abstraction or other types of art forms and what they entail. They experimented with various concepts where they answered questions including why the need of abstraction and the level of abstraction they incorporate in their artworks.
“When you know more about what abstraction means in the arts, you will know that it is not only a way of making the content of the work invisible and distant, but it is about giving them another form of appearance in a way that they give more sense than they usually give, which challenges our understanding and knowledge of things through our everyday experiences,” Berhanu says.
Yet he also says that it is not necessarily relevant all the time to use abstraction as a major form of creative presentation at this day and age. “There are also issues that are very important to be presented and discussed as they are or seem to be without distancing the viewers from the subject,” Mihret says, adding that artists are free to come up with their own art production as long as they justify what they are doing.