A 1.8-meter long wooden chopping board stands at the entrance of Lela Gallery. It is one of two wooden sculptures part of Mektefia #2. There are also 12 stone reproductions of cutting boards, reimagined anew and chiseled from large boulders excavated from Tafo. 62 paintings accompany these installation pieces. Mektefia #2 has occupied all imaginable space at Lela, utilizing the beautiful garden for the installation of most of the sculptures.
Tamrat Siltan has worked on Mektefia #2 as a concept for the past two years. The cutting board (mektefia) is used a metaphor for the familial and social responsibilities and burdens women have been shouldered for generations. The cutting board serves as a motif for what Tamrat refers to as the ‘suffering and sacrifice women and mothers endure, improving the lives of those around them’, a role they are continuously forced to take, but for which they are rarely acknowledged.
An avid researcher and ruminator on a single subject, he has found multiple media to explore this theme. The first iteration of the concept was held at an exhibition, Mektefua, at the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences early this year. This multimedia exhibition featured the paintings and installations of chopping boards Tamrat had collected for a long time along with poetry and musical performances.
Lela’s Mektefia #2 is subtler, a gentle reminder in contrast to the shock of Mektefua that showed cutting boards dressed in cloths hanging from the ceiling by the necks. The image had unsettled many. Tamrat had employed the use of multiple tools to get his message across, but he did not find it to be adequate.
So he kept producing more pieces and integrated the use of stones. The immovable and irrefutable nature of rocks felt like he was solidifying his message, but also refusing to compromise on the role of women in Ethiopian society.
The wooden chopping board installation that is over a meter long was taken from a butcher in Addis Ababa. A large hole gapes from the middle of the board. Up close inspection shows the small cuts and scars on the boards from knives and other sharp tools. This potent image transports the viewer to the past–your mother’s, aunt’s or even grandmother’s cutting board at home, the rhythmic chopping and dicing as pots are raucously stirred and cooking smells envelop your senses.
These details are delicately reproduced on the paintings. The cutting board grows thinner with every use. It wears down over time. “Every time food is presented as part of our daily meal, no one seems to pay attention to all the scars and beatings and cuttings the mektefia receives from the sharp knives used to cut and chop. Transforming and gradually altering its shape and leaving a signature on its being,” Tamrat goes on to explain how the food we eat bears these marks as with each meal we ingest a small piece of the board’s flesh.
The cutting board is not simply a symbol of the kitchen, Tamrat insists. “Take the woman out of the kitchen. It is about the social expectations, the sacrifice involved, the pain women endure. It is to give attention and respect what they have been doing.”
In the exhibition text he explains, “I am here trying to use the lived life of the mektefia to interpret the lives of women. By interrogating our patriarchal society and its norms and its banking on the subjection of women, I would like to provoke … to pay attention to the daily lives and sacrifices of women and the violence that characterizes their existence in our society.”
Researcher and social historian Semeneh Ayalew described Mektefua as “a work that acknowledges the subjection of women without desubjectifying them.” This is an apt description of Mektefia #2. Straight edged cutting boards are softened, curved, made to appear feminine. They have adopted the shapes of their primary users. If the roles of women were taken for granted before, they have been given attention now; but only within the boundaries of the chopping board. They have been immortalized in stone but their identity has been chiseled off.
The presence of the board cannot be escaped, even in the details. The warm toned paintings, a mixture of acrylic and silkscreen, depict large boards that loom over everyday scenes of the city.
The arrangement of the boards on the canvas is almost musical. Inspired by pop art, these pieces combine the contemporary method that has been used to immortalize and even exploit the trappings of modern life, with the age-old concept of self-sacrificial women and mothers.
Tamrat is quick to admit that he is the product of such a system. The trivialization or obscuring of women as they are relegated to the roles of a mother, a caregiver, and a nurturer continues. While the perception of the domestic roles of women is changing, they are still perceived to be primary caregivers and nurturesand the kitchen is largely the domain of women. Modern life has come to respect the agency of women in some sense but Ethiopian society has still very far to go in installing gender equality. His work stands witness to this gap.
Moreover, the complexity of a woman as a human being and a member of society should not be forgotten. The perpetuation of the image of the female as mother, caregiver or embodiment of morality and overall good has come to plague Ethiopian society.
Tamrat’s paintings, portraits of mektefias distorted to resemble feminine figures, plays with this notion. Their diverse poses and shapes could be said to resemble the heterogeneity of women.
Tamrat has explored various concepts that reflect socially relevant issues or challenge accepted norms. A concept he still works on under the title ‘Afersata’ explores traditional Ethiopian forms of enacting justice in contrast with the modern judicial system.
The exhibition has coincided with nationwide movements that draw attention to the plight of women such as the 16 days of activism against gender based violence. The personal, and the social, is political. Mektefia #2 has employed various methods to grab society’s attention and question age-old narratives.
Mektefia #2 will remain open at Lela until December 30.