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Comforting and hopeful depictions of the pandemic

Comforting and hopeful depictions of the pandemic

Dispatches from Limbo, a group exhibition, opened this weekend at LeLa Gallery - one of the few contemporary art galleries to open doors after the COVID-19 pandemic induced shut down of businesses. Behailu Bezabih, Dawit Abebe, Eyob Kitaba, Henok Melkamzer, Nahom Teklehaimanot, Tamrat Gezahegne, and Tewodros Hagos gathered to present an exhibition of works new and old.

Of course, Addis Fine Art has been open since September, presenting the talented Selome Muleta’s paintings and Fendika Art Gallery is preparing for a new exhibition opening this week but this will be the first show in Addis Ababa for all 7 artists.

“We are all, worldwide, in disbelief at the changes in our lives. As a pandemic sweeps the globe, millions dead, millions more infected, fears of death, thoughts of illness are paramount, and many of us exist in a state of limbo,” said Lilly Sahle, director of LeLa Gallery and curator of this exhibition, in her opening address. She added: “like many others, a form of paralysis set in, not knowing how to react – feeling dumbfounded as we all navigate this uncharted territory. I had to consider re-opening, and what that would mean. When I called the artists participating in this show I was uncertain how they would react, but everyone was eager to do something. Moving forwards, finding a new way to continue living, finding peace and beauty in the midst of disruption is our only path forwards.”

Lilly has gathered big names in Ethiopian art to showcase their works and offer a reprieve from the past few months of stasis. The art scene got a well-deserved breath of fresh air as artists who haven’t seen each other in several months and those of us who have missed art exhibitions came together. As to why all the artists in this group show were men, Lilly answered, “We’ll do women next time. These artists seemed to work best together.”

Behailu Bezabih previewed new works primarily motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic. One especially moving piece shows a man holding a lantern, guiding a mayhem of ambulances. He remarked: “My work is about our current situation. It is the truth. We’re all looking for a solution and that is where life is found. Everything that’s happening is not just about us, it’s a global phenomenon.”

According to Behailu, this painting was inspired by a particular incident near his home where an ambulance couldn’t locate the ailing person’s home at night and a man had to guide them with a torchlight. Behailu often chooses highly relevant moments, events, or ideas as entry points to explore the ways society is affected by subtle details and nuances. He has adopted a simple drawing technique and soft colors to capture and tame adrenaline-filled moments.

Behailu worked on these pieces during the stay at home. “It’s not an easy time. Your spirit must be free to work and be productive. Artists’ lives are not like they used to be.”

Dawit Abebe’s works in the exhibition are older pieces from 2004 and 2005 that serve as a reminder of his origins, the social criticism that gripped him early on and has rippled across his oeuvre. Henok Melkamzer’s highly intricate Telsem drawings made in painstaking detail are at once calming and mesmerizing, talismans of a more hopeful time. Nahom Teklehaimanot’s debut market scenes are expertly accurate depictions of life as we knew it. Tewodros Hagos’ beautiful portraits in his signature style are familiar signals that remind one of the comfort art gives in troubled times.

Two pieces from Eyob Kitaba’s Consumption series are also included in this exhibition. Juxtaposing locally used products with globalization and capitalism and especially focusing on Chinese products and their proliferation across Africa, these mixed media pieces on metal are a study of power and identity, especially as global consumerism creates monolithic cultural elements. “We can see power is being exerted. The signs are all over the city. We sense something is happening. My work can be a way of questioning our existence, our identity as Ethiopians or as Africans,” he pointed out.  

These pieces are part of a conversation about Ethiopian history, global capitalism and consumer culture. They were produced during the stay at home and Eyob says the COVID-19 pandemic gave him a lot to think about. “It gave me an opportunity to read a lot, to think, and work on these and other pieces. This pandemic has made me question, and hope, and worry about the ways we live,” he stated. Eyob’s previous work focused on urbanization and displacement.

Tamrat Gezahegn’s Adornment in iconic style is another element of this group exhibition. Produced specifically for this exhibition, Adornment is a technicolor interpretation of body decorations. Adornments have historically been used as markers of beauty, or applied for healing and protection purposes. Tamrat’s depiction is, however, neon and futuristic. Contours seem to trace the landscape of the body as well as the physical terrain of the land.

Tamrat spent the pandemic stay at home working at the studio space he shares with two artists in Piassa and cycling around the city with the green bicycle from his 2017 show Waiting at LeLa Gallery. He also spent time painting and designing Fendika Cultural Center’s newly renovated interior performance space and outdoor area. “Of course we felt the initial panic when there were reports of new infections and deaths but eventually we adjusted. Fendika was a private place for us. It was not a bad time for me,” says Tamrat. He also had an exhibition in the Netherlands in August; so, it’s been a busy period for Tamrat.

Dispatches from Limbo doesn’t feel much like limbo. The artworks don’t carry a hint of the stress and confusion of the stay at home months and the artists were likely experiencing at some point during the pandemic. Viewing this exhibition feels comforting and hopeful, familiar in the best way.