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Exploring economic justice through textile 
Art

Exploring economic justice through textile 

Kirubel Melke’s exhibition (the distance) Between Me and My Home opened this week at Alliance Ethio-Francaise. The exhibition features textile collage and fabric and paper collages in Kirubel’s signature style. 

Kirubel adopted textile as his main medium as a student at Ale School of Fine Art and Design. Of course his interest goes way back. “My mother worked in a garment factory and I have memories of stitching fabric with her,” explains Kirubel. Some items that he made as a child are still in his possession and he’s integrated a few of them into his artwork. 

Kirubel uses jeans as his main textile and sources fabric from various places including asking friends and neighbors for old discarded clothes and shops around Aroge Tera where he can find used items in bulk. His preference for used and well worn items stems from a desire to connect the fabric to the people and their experiences of wearing the clothes. Place and time of production, type of fabric, and design all tell a story about the wearer, especially about economic background, social status, and lifestyle. 

In ‘Mother and Child’, a cityscape shows buildings Kirubel signals are religious institutions. The mother and child, standing against a background of taxis and an Ambessa bus, are depicted using the shawl Ethiopian Airlines provides to passengers. The economic disparity is stark. 

Kirubel has used the religiously significant iconography of mother and child to illustrate how even religion has become commercialized and warped in a capitalist world. 

The ubiquity of jeans as evidenced by ‘Flesh and Soul’ bring our own approach to shopping into question. The effects of fast fashion on countries like Ethiopia have been documented extensively but it has done little to correct the fashion industry’s practices. 

Kirubel has mastered the technique of creating movement on a canvas. Both ‘The Washing Line’ and ‘Crucifixion’ depict similar scenes of a cloth drying line. One can imagine the wind rustling, the sun giving light and shadow, the sound of trees as they sway. 

The precise stitching is done by hand. The layering of colors one shade off gives depth and dimension to these pieces. Kirubel describes the process of sewing fabric onto canvas as meditative. 

The bright colors and open negative space in many of the pieces hint at lightness and mirth but there is a lot of tragedy in (The Distance) Between Me and My Home

Hung upside down in ‘Untitled 3’, the netela’s tilet is a faded blue that slips into teal. The orange sun behind it hints that the tilet could be the sky or the horizon. Viewed with Kirubel’s background and cultural significance of tilet in mind, however, the netela hanging upside down signals tragedy. Below the tilet is a barcode made of black and white cloth tags or labels slightly off kilter. What could have been a hopeful application of technology has not been executed correctly. 

The titles of several pieces are brilliant entry points to understanding Kirubel's intentions. ‘Kemogn Dej Mofer Yiqoretal’ shows the exploitations many go through as their knowledge, natural wealth, cultural practices are plundered and appropriated. 

‘The Story of Winners’ highlights multitudes of unknown and unrecognized people who are behind the one person who stands as representative to the masses without fully acknowledging their significance. History is written by the victors, explains Kirubel, so what do the losers have to say? 

While economic inequality, colonization and the effects of globalization are a big part of (the distance) Between Me and My Home, Kirubel hopes his works can lead viewers to deeper introspection. 

“These works were made while thinking about external events that made me wonder ‘if this were done, or if this were changed’. Viewing them in my studio, though, I realized these works made me question myself. This made me understand that any search has to begin with the self,” writes Kirubel in his artist statement. 

Perhaps making these works led Kirubel to himself but the pieces in this exhibition stand as social and economic commentary of our times and it’s a delight watching Ethiopian artists engaging in conceptual work that was previously obfuscated through art-speak and political repression. The works in (the distance) Between Me and My Home should not just lead to self scrutiny but to substantial action that will question our engagement with clothes, civic responsibility and economic justice.  

 (the distance) Between Me and My Home will remain on view at Alliance Ethio-Francaise until January 1, 2021.