Capturing change frame by frame
In the final chapter of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a celebrated literary work published in the 1972, which is presented as a sequence of imaginary dialogue between a Venetian traveler Marco Polo and the Tartar emperor Kublai Khan, the narrator Marco Polo describes the city of Berenice to the great Kublai Khan as product of two opposing yet integral aspects of a city. On the surface, the visible Berenice, unjust and cruel to residents; while the hidden Berenice embodies just and complex network that keeps the city running smoothly. Similar to Calvino’s tale of marvelous cities which makes the imagination wonder, another tale of a city, more familiar, and far more close to truth, has been told this week.
Two photography exhibitions that tell a visual story of Addis Ababa graced the white walls of Alliance Ethio –Française and Goethe Institute this week.
The first, Building Addis Ababa, was by a veteran French photographer Emmanuel Benoit. His series of portraits of young men in Addis Ababa question identity in the ever-changing face of this city. Benoit, an aeronautical engineer and frequent traveler around the world, develops portraits that question multiple identities. The exhibition consisted of large black and white photographs and large product sheets. He had traveled to various locations around the city taking these portraits without use of artificial lighting.
Against Gravity, a group show organized as part of collaboration between Center for Photography in Ethiopia and Goethe Institute, was the other exhibition that revolves around the themes of identity, change and people.
Eight emerging photographers–Abdi Bekele, Addis Aemero, Bemnet Fekadu, Brook Getachew, Firehiwot Gebrealu, Mesert Argaw, Obsa Zerihun and Solomon Nigus–showed their works created following the CPE workshop mentorship program led by prominent art photographer Michael Tsegaye.
Against Gravity consists of images presented through photographs, videos and installations. The mentorship and workshop program trained these burgeoning photographers for 6 months in the technical operation of cameras, research, critical thinking and public engagement.
Against Gravity’s various pieces have the common property of combining the individual with the social, traversing through the intersecting issues of identity, social justice, gender and economic disparity prevalent in urban life. While Benoit’s work looks at the hidden men behind the city’s boom, Against Gravity explores the direct and indirect ways the city continuously, perhaps inadvertently, affects residents.
Benoit’s young men stare out at the viewer, working men that he offers have traveled to the city in hopes of employment and better opportunities, are devastatingly honest. Four of the photographs in the series are hung against the green and yellow corrugated iron sheets typically found surrounding construction sites or the city’s eyesores.
The men wear beanies, hoodies, sunhats, and hardhats or sport the spiked hair of many young men in the city. They wear dirty or torn clothes. Their lips are dry or chapped. Their direct frontal gaze at the camera is non-threatening, almost sad. Sincere, shrewd, suspicious, determined, innocent, apprehensive, hopeful looks stare at the viewer.
A splattered paint and asymmetrical face hauntingly gazes out of the frame. Beneath a strong set of jaws and thick necks hang two pendants, a large cross and an equal sized flag of Oromia.
Looking at these faces, one is forced to wonder about their place in society. As Benoit said in his statement, Building Addis Ababa “pays tribute to the Ethiopian youths working under appalling conditions, risking their lives every day in the name of a development they do not yet enjoy.”
Benoit states, “We are in the midst of a daunting urban revolution and Addis Ababa is no longer the city I saw the first time 10 years ago.”
One Against Gravity piece, perhaps not immediately obvious as it is plastered on the inside of the old fashioned windowpanes of the gallery space, is Bemnet Fikadu’s Era. The images are facades of buildings in Addis, exploring old Addis architecture, documenting what Bement calls ‘what Addis Ababa stands for as a city’.
Firehiwot Bebrealu’s Picture Harmony and Brook Getachew’s Sparse Density document the rapidly changing face of the city and the lives that have been disrupted. They employ torn up collage pieces and LED screens to tell these stories.
A large wood scaffolding placed in the middle of the room immediately draws attention. Abdi Bekele’s Foundation tells the story of female construction workers in Addis. “Women disproportionately bear the responsibilities in construction sites … Often overlooked are women daily laborers (re)building stories with hard physical labor, with their work often treated as menial. They are (un)knowingly playing an instrumental part in weaving this city’s story that is embodied by a rapidly emerging concrete jungle,” states Abdi.
Solomon Nigus’s Night Time Vendors depicts the simultaneously comedic and tragic scene of street vendors in Addis. Hawking wares in crowded city centers as dusk approaches, loudly attracting the passersby, running from guards, intent on confiscating their means of making a livelihood ... the scene is familiar and skillfully portrayed.
Untitled by Meseret Argaw, a series of 6 images of various women whose faces or eyes have been covered, challenges gender paradigms that dehumanize women by equating identity with traditional domestic roles. The vivid studio photos movingly depict this systemic stripping of identity and selfhood. “I began with the thought that I was fighting my own battle. But I came to realize that through my story I was also telling the story of women who daily walk the road I could have walked,” states Meseret.
Maheder Haileselassie, photographer and founder of Center for Photography in Ethiopia, explained the many hurdles CPE had to overcome to bring this exhibition to fruition. By employing methods that differ from the accepted approach to photography, this mentorship program consisted of a lot of practices and experimentations.
CPE was created as part of the British Council’s Creative Futures Program, an initiative with Goethe Institute and iceAddis and funded by the European Union. Creative Futures has been supporting visual arts through trainings and workshops but the program has now come to an end after a 2 year span.
There is a lack of proper training for photographers in Ethiopia and CPE was established with this in mind. Julia Sattler, Director of Goethe Institute, stated that the need for an organization to support visual and digital artists has become obvious and urged young creative individuals to follow their passions. But proper infrastructure needs to be in place to support these future artists.
Photographs, and other works of art, have the power to bring the invisible to the forefront of mainstream attention. Systems at work may not be immediately apparent but these types of glimpses into the lives of the oft ignored or forgotten can bring awareness to the consequences of collective action or lack thereof.
Calvino’s tale of Berenice can be considered a warning. “… In the seed of the city of the just, a malignant seed is hidden, in its turn … another unjust city, though different from the first, is digging out its space within the double sheath of the unjust and just Berenices,” he says. “But if you peer deeper into this new germ of justice you can discern a tiny spot that is spreading like the mounting tendency to impose what is just through what is unjust, and perhaps this is the germ of an immense metropolis …”
Social and economic justices are part and parcel of creating a healthy and thriving society. Creating opportunities for the youth and sustainable means of income that do not infringe upon human and democratic rights are essential.
Benoit’s statement ends with a call to action. “Through this photographic series, I aim to bring about reflections on our word, encourage critical thinking and ultimately remind us that, if we care, all together we have the power to direct the show.”