Henok Melkamzer’s talismanic art ‘Min Neber?’ opened Tuesday March 20 at the Gebre Kirstos Desta Center Modern Art Museum. The exhibition featured works Henok has been working on for the past four years exploring the Ethiopian craft of Telsem.
Telsem is an esoteric wisdom entailing of talismanic healing art in the form of written and illustrated scrolls. Telsem itself can be interpreted as ‘to put something in symbolic/numeric or alphabetical form, which has a spiritual or philosophical meaning.’ Historically, the scrolls, made from vellum and natural plant pigments, were written for an individual to cast out evil spirits or cure an illness.
The paintings feature painstakingly detailed and intricate patterns drawn in ink then filled with what Henok calls as the seven basic colors using watercolors and handmade pigments from plants. The pieces have heavy Orthodox Christian imagery and symbolism typically seen in church paintings and religious texts including crosses, angels, Star of David and various animals. The exhibition included anthropologist Jacques Mercier’s 2010 documentary explaining the historical and religious significance of telsem and the role it still plays in modern Ethiopian society.
Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis (PhD), director of the museum and curator of the exhibition says problems in our country arise from lack of clarity in understanding what is modern. “We have to know our cultural make up before importing foreign concepts.” The relationship of telsem with Christianity and the sophistication of the art is part of Ethiopian identity. She believes Henok’s work can redefine modern art by putting it within a local context. “Most of us don’t know the philosophy behind his work,” but these piece will prompt us to study the history of the art. By demystifying modern art we can preserve history and redefine modernity for Ethiopians. Henok is grateful to Dr. Elizabeth for allowing the art that he loves to be showcased to large audience.
These visual representations of traditional Ethiopian art give us context to explore our own history and the complex relationship we have with modernity. Henok is fighting to preserve this skill/craft from what he calls a ‘satellite infection’ that causing us to lose our national identity. His work taps into Ethiopian heritage and craftsmanship like telsem, old knowledge that existed long before abstract art, he says, and flourish Ethiopian art.
Henok has found it hard to explain relevance and meaning of telsem because of mainstream religion’s influence. Extricating the complex symbolism from its spiritual roots and presenting works of art to an audience that has typically conflated telsem with witchcraft or magic can be difficult. The practice of the craft has been largely hidden for fear of persecution or ostracism. They are feared or misunderstood, he says, the way people feared mobile phones or computers when they first emerged. It is a fear caused by lack of knowledge. To him, knowledge is the light of life and his work is to put what he has learned to canvas.
He argues that his works are a documentation and preservation of an art that is quickly disappearing. By drawing from Ethiopian zodiacs and 13-month calendar Henok explores each sign and depicts its nature in great detail. He has been working on telsem art for 18 years. They key to reading telsem is to begin from the center and move outwards. Henok refers to these intricately detailed patterns as hareg (vine). Each hareg begins with a word or spiritual concept to depict the complex relationship between color and the alphabetical form of language. “Hareg is the basis of Ethiopian art,” he says. The initial ink drawing of the pattern for these pieces took 3 years to complete.
Henok Melkamzer’s Min Neber? will remain open until April 21 and will be followed by Robel Temesgen’s Adbar.
Contributed by Hiwot Abebe