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Redefining modern art
Robel Temesgen’s Adbar on exhibit at the Modern Art Museum

Redefining modern art

The second chapter of Modern Art Museum: Gebre Kristos Desta Center’s “Min Neber?” featured Robel Temesgen’s Adbar, a study of physical spaces that embody spirits and their interaction with believers and inhabitants of the area. The first chapter showed the talismanic works of Henok Melkamzer, paintings that explore the ancient and controversial craft of Telsem. Director of the Modern Art Museum Elizabeth WoldeGiorgis (PhD) curated this two-fold exhibition to highlight these esoteric beliefs and create a conversation about modern Ethiopian art.

Most towns and villages in Ethiopia are usually positioned around a notable hill, water source or large tree, which can be used as meeting point or town center. However, Ethiopians have a far deeper connection to such locations. Inhabitants believe these locations or adbars host spirits that offer protection. Robel’s upbringing in a sheltered Orthodox Christian household allowed him few colorful glimpses of these types of belief systems where certain locations are soaked in butter or scented with incense. The relationship, according to Robel, isn’t just between a person and the spirit but also between the person and the physical space. His work contemplates the intertwined relationship between people that build and bless places of worship and in turn taking blessings from the place.

To research these places and study their social relevance to this date, Robel traveled around Bishoftu aka DebreZeit, studying locations that celebrate Irrecha, Bahir Dar and Gonder passively observing adbars and interviewing residents. He observed, believers add layers to ordinary things like trees or mountains through rituals and incantations, making the landscape more removed and distant. Robel attempts to traverse and inhabit these spaces, penetrating the metaphysical membrane separating people from these spirits’ homes. Navigating through metaphysical space and playing with his own vivid imagination, Robel tried to portray what physicality would dwell in an adbar

The medium of Robel’s choice may be painting but his method strays from the ordinary oil or acrylic paint on a canvas. He chose to employ markers, glitter, ink, nail polish, stickers and florescent paints on a paper. Familiar images of trees rooted in rocky soil, sun, wings, typically seen in Orthodox Christian artworks, jebena and sini are all set against impossibly bright and cosmic landscape. Large sceneries depict tree roots in great detail holding up clouds of ephemeral light pulsing with life. Transparent formless blobs swirling with neon light are seen hovering above the rocky ground. Up close, the details of each pointillist nail polish and the layers of paint that illustrate movement of clouds or the wings of angels is almost unreal. His dualistic approach, which is delicate (small dots and intricate details) and rough (layers of paper and caked paint) at once allows the viewer to perceive more and contemplate one’s place in the cosmos.

Adbar is a project that he began four years ago for his MFA thesis at Tromsø Academy of Contemporary Art, in Norway. After visiting shared and communal grounds in a foreign country and studying the significance of these spaces, Robel staged a self-flagellation performance art called Semone Himamat (week of prayer leading up to Easter Sunday) during Easter at a public square. The project is inspired by Ethiopian monks that come into city centers and self-flagellate, thereby interrupting normal functioning of a town and its people. Robel recreated that ritual in Norway, an awkward and alien locale, for five days.

A legend about an adbar space in Dessie states that men on a horseback must dismount and pay respect to the spirit residing in adbars or their journey will be infinitely lengthy. Studying the elasticity of space in this context, Robel says, challenges our own understanding of a physical space. According to Robel, another legend that says all spirits congregate at a single adbar once a year induces us to further explore how these spirits communicate with each other, schedule a meeting time and place and defy conventional conceptions of time. Even though the place may undergo several changes over the years, the residents’ narratives of the location and the spirits that dwell in that space remain the same. Some places may no longer be sacred but stories of their power are passed on. As cities change adbars can be replaced by retail shops. Robel urges their history should be passed on through the generations and well documented.

For Elizabeth, the most important thing is the study of the philosophy behind these works and putting them in an Ethiopian modern art context. Even though the practice and craft of both Telsem and Adbar have all but been forgotten in cities, it is still important to have conversations about them, she argues. Elements of Ethiopian practices and crafts deemed harmful by both government bodies and major religious organizations have only hidden the practices from public view for fear of persecution, especially in more urban areas, she says. Marking out these locations, documenting the crafts and researching their history is an integral part of studying the Ethiopian identity, according to her. Elizabeth says the philosophy behind Henok’s Telsem and Robel’s Adbar have all been thrown out for the sake of modernity. “Questioning and understanding one’s self, studying the significance of each cultural element and digging deep into our own culture and philosophy are fundamental elements of understanding modern art,” she says.

Western influences together with the rapid urbanization have affected our relationship with space and the ecology. Robel raised the issue of the expansion of major cities like Addis Ababa not only having economic and political implications for residents uprooted from their homes but also severing spiritual connection between community and location. Elizabeth hopes that the works of Henok and Robel will begin an exploration and reinterpretations of Ethiopian Modern Art. The problem, she says, is that we have adopted western interpretations of what modernism means without question. “Modern means progressive, transformative. It is up for our own interpretation and articulation … Ethiopian artists can appropriate European or American ‘modernity’ and create works informed by our own progress and shortcomings.” 

Adbar has been shown at Tiwani Contemporary, London, UK in 2016 and, Kurant Visningsrom, Tromsø, Norway in 2015. Robel did not have an exhibition in Addis Ababa for the past 4 years, as he was traveling to Sweden, Germany, Italy and the UK. He now teaches in the painting department at the Addis Ababa University Alle School of Fine Arts and has his own studio. Adbar stay open at the Gebre Kristos Desta Center until April 26.