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Banana Man: taking art to the next level

Banana Man: taking art to the next level

When it comes to bananas, it seems that it is no longer taboo to play with your food. Artists around the world have turned to the curved canvas to create their latest playful and inspiring masterpieces. And here in Ethiopia, Ras Hailu Tefari is doing just that. In his hands, the ordinary banana is being transformed into a work of art, writes Senait Feseha.

Consider the humble banana. It is one of the most popular fruits in the world. For years, this super food has been used to boost energy, to whiten teeth, to lower blood pressure or even polish leather shoes. Yet, rhetorically it is often used in a derogatory manner. The phrase ‘going bananas’ indicates craziness, to have lack of self-control or to act in a silly, excitable manner.

But for artist Ras Hailu Tefari, a.k.a. Banana Man, Bananas surpass their homely appearance. In fact, he might be banana’s number one hype man. As a vegetarian, he appreciates the humble banana in its many forms; but his admiration goes well beyond the kitchen.

At his home gallery, located in Shashemene, Oromia Regional State, the banana is king. He uses parts from the entire banana tree to make his art; the flower, the fruits and the body of the tree.

His style is similar to ‘collage’.  He intricately cuts tiny patterns, designs and imagery out of collected tree parts and glue them together to from his drawing. He uses scissors and razor blades, which he believes are best for cutting out his segments. “All you need is a scissor and a razor blade, the real machinery behind my artwork is patience and love.”

Contrary to the limitations of the materials, as one would expect, he has managed to extract a wide range of colors from the banana tree without compromising on the artistic perception of the work.

In one of his pieces, four women are seen dressed in Ethiopian traditional clothing, they are holding flowers. Although their general outlines looks similar, the hues, textures and patterns are extremely varied; it is visible the artist went through a great length to compose the piece.

Pointing at the artwork, Ras Hailu said, “What the world has to know is that, the effects, the colors and the shades are beyond human imagination.  That is the beauty of natural art. Nothing can stand against it.”

The simple background of the rural landscape, the meticulous patterns of traditional weaving, the different shades of skin tone and the monotonous white fabric reveal one thing: the banana leaves are commanded to his imagination without sacrificing detail.

For Ras Hailu, the key to his ‘Banana Art’ is the self-imposed strictness that requires only parts of the tree to be used in every design. “In spite of all the rich colours and shades existing in my artworks, I don’t use dyes, stains, or varnish.”

If anyone wishes to visit Ras Hailu at his gallery/ home in Shashemene, they will most likely find him in his creative routine. He is usually taking care of his vibrant garden, which has numerous types of flowers, fruits, vegetables, and herbs or sitting in his studio working on a selection of his signature collages and contemplating his work.

"I live a simple life. I plant to get inspired and nourished.” He said with a bright smile, proudly pointing towards the trees and identifying “my papaya, my tangerine, my moringa tree, my mango, avocado, sweet sap, sour sap…”

Part of his daily ritual is praying and giving praise in his garden. “The best thing to do with flowers is pray with them. Quarter to six, in the evening, the flowers and trees bend down, they say their praise. This is nature.”

When asked if there is any connection between his art and his garden he said yes. For instance, in a piece titled ‘a pattern of my thoughts’, one can see beautifully arranged flowers in shades of red and brown, they are ‘attract’ (the word he uses interchangeably with ‘abstract’ ) forming an infinitive looking loop. “My thoughts are the flowers, I look at the flowers for shapes, I learn how to blend colors by looking at the sunset. They are my inspiration; I don’t really watch much TV. I don’t even go to listen reggae concerts no more, although I am a musician, I listen to nature’s orchestra.”

 “God lives in the heart of everyone…I humble myself before him, I get my meditation and joy listening to the birds, seeing my dogs and cat playing together, looking at these flowers, I have a nice family, that is evidence of his blessing.”

Ras Hailu creates artworks inspired by nature; his works feature the Ethiopian culture, Haille Selassie I, historical events and the map of Africa. Most of his work includes cut out imageries featuring women dressed in traditional clothing going about their daily lives; like going to the market, or making coffee.

It is rare for a person to dedicate themselves with such care to form intricate designs from small organic pieces. Some of his artworks took him more than 25 years. He sometimes pauses his works for an elongated period of time, when the “moment of creation is not in him.”

He encourages visitors to touch and feel the textures in his artwork and even allows them to take photographs freely “The beauty in my art is the materials I use, because my artworks are not like those in other galleries where your fingers or the lights destroy it.”

When asked about how he chooses the right part of the tree to make his art, he responded, “When you eat, you look for the ripest fruit on the tree.  When I choose the materials, I look for the most beautiful part of the tree. I collect the dry ones because if I take them out when they are raw and wet, I wouldn’t know what color they will turn out to be when they dry. Plus it will be too heavy to carry.”

He developed a skill to preserve the color green (when the parts are the rawest) “I don’t use chemical preservatives to make it stay green. I just look at how Ethiopians make bread, covering it with Koba (False Banana leaves) when exposed to heat, it stays green. So fire is what keeps banana leaves green. It took me twenty years to realize that.”

“I use Banana trees for my art because banana is the chief crop in St. Vincent, where I grew up. I discovered the skill when I was 10; I received the gift from God.”

This mostly unheard of artist residing in Shashemene is famous internationally. His work has been exhibited throughout the world, he has won various awards and people from all over the world visit his gallery in Shashemene. His works are owned by notable individuals such as the former American president Ronald Reagan, Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda and Luinchi of Venezuela.  

This is the only banana art gallery in the world; his works are not even exhibited in the capital. “Since I arrived in 1994, I have not left, and I am not leaving.  The whole world is right here, a mystical place.”

“This banana art is unique and belongs to me; I do it with love, patience and tolerance.” He believes his art could be a good tourism attraction in Shashemene. “This is my gift to Ethiopia; anyone can use it freely, and use the name freely. I am waiting on people from other regions to come so I pass down this skill.”

In addition to his arts, Ras Hailu has a huge assembly of collectables in his gallery. A few of them include , vintage medals, royal armours, Ethiopian currencies, coins, alcohol permits, voting cards, books, and magazine issues from a once famous magazine titled ‘Ethiopian Mirror’ from almost  before half a century. He hopes that one day that all his collectables go into a museum in Shashemene.