Reflection of an Ethiopian art critic
Mulugeta Tafesse is a visual artist, art critic and theoretician. He is also the author of the book ‘Towards African Mimesis: Regarding East Africa’s Art Scene Now’. Mulugata graduated from Ale School of Fine Art and Design in 1980, obtained his masters at Higher Institute of Fine Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria, a postgraduate degree from the National Higher Institute for Fine Arts in Antwerp (Be.), and then his PhD from La Laguna University in Spain. He has written extensively on Ethiopian and African art, creating a great body of text on art works that lack documentation and analysis. Currently Mulugeta is based in Antwerp, Belgium and Hiwot Abebe of The Reporters caught up to him last week while he was in town for the opening of his current show ‘Frivolous Marks’ at Lela Art Gallery and the Ethiopian art scene and sat down for a brief interview. Excerpts:
The Reporter: How would I describe the works shown in ‘Frivolous Marks’? Why is that the title of the show? Where does your current exhibit stand among the many other works you displayed so far?
Mulugeta Tafesse: It has a comeback dose in it. The very attribution of the title derives from an unambiguously set façade; an evasive deluge, which blows its objective to sustain itself or the reverse, disappears into (the) void. My painting, which I likened to an organized visual field from the start, was named “Frivolous (material)”. This was one of my double-paired horizontally laid –combined and composed – oeuvre: And it was methodically arranged and aesthetically tied to the original concept of my scruples. The elements that construct my images; my feeble elements described above. Expressed in words or unspoken (with a tacit vernacular) but living in the mind or manifested in an art form, my paintings were put in a series. They were works on paper and silkscreen prints, signed, “Deciphered (portraits)”. And hence I make a big effort to compare genuinely both Classic Western and East African exploitation of the Mimesis project. The art of figuration is a broad term and needs further and deeper inquiries. Here I stress upon the interpretations of European philosophers who have written extensively on visual arts; From Denis Diderot via Lyotard’s to Foucault and Derrida. Seyoum Wolde and Kifle Beseat likewise are not spared in my aesthetical and artistic meandering. I also see what is stuck in our artists’ mind from the past; i.e., from the Pre-Axumite to Axumite period, from the Early Medieval to the Late Medieval periods, from the Modern to Contemporary times. Social realism (not Socialist realism) to the current New Classicism (Photo Realism, Magic Realism, Surrealism Hyper realism), and modern expressionism styles just to mention a few art periods are in my research list. There has happened rampantly socialism, but the shopping malls and the open gap that socialism has filled to use this electronics media are still intact in Ethiopia’s urban space and on the public’s mental scope. These images of the past are stuck there. The light poles, the working girls, my automobiles–some times, a grey Range-rover, a Toyota 4 Wheel Drive, a Pink Renault—are subjects that reflect this reality. My reservoir materials to use in my art! Composed in Pairs (entitled “Three set portraits” or troika - heads, quartet, quintet or sextet, septet, octet, etc Heads or Faces, they sound boring but I use repetition as my visual note that changes little) jointly, on some occasions reaching up to 12 pieces as a single picture (i.e., vertically laid 3 x 4 pieces), these images form an intense physical spot. They echo the sequential decorum or presence of nature. They reflect it. My paintings are often considered as a distinct oeuvre, consequently named and also steadily passing their aesthetic and material quality. Sometimes they instantly surpass beyond notion, the place of artistic sustenance (my strict critical extent), and at other times, they gently add up to their own amalgam trace; contained frivol to the effective marvels of the aesthetic sight. They are the coherent belief–figurative, yet densely abstract, and rational, marked in unperturbed regard. The notion of “Frivolous Marks” has philosophy’s detour, if not relying wholly on it, as its core ideal, and doesn’t escape the Ethiopian or African modernist (contemporary) artists’ aesthetic and/or semantic gist. One can always find at ease in the Addis writers’ like Berhanu Zerihun, Dagnachew Worku and Sebhat Gebre Egziabher’s life absorbed plots, and, in the painters like Gebre Kristos Desta, Tadesse Mesfin, and Eshetu Tiruneh’s world, down to earth destitute subjects. Both clusters portray the siege and elation of realism. When the later paraphrased displays or dissolves in the picture the perishable sustenance of the characters; the perseverance of a harsh landscape, the hostile gravels of a deserted abode, the frail condition of a man when it lapses down on his own knees, forsaken to stand its own lots, unable to fill its own frame, feeble to rally, its own destiny to stand. A successful realism is then accomplished in the arts. This seizure of the macabre foci is not unlike the world’s art and literature working scene.
After making your residence in Antwerp, how would you place your works (art pieces and written text) within the Ethiopian art context?
I’m consumed with artistic labor, first and foremost. I happen often to pick books to read and lay my hands on notebooks to write. This helps restore my energy. Considering the place where I live and work is of paramount importance for me. I impart from there a quality time and peaceful ether to be fully engaged with my artistic toils, and intellectual persuasions. The material benefit I get here may be close to none, and almost futile–however, I enjoy producing art like nothing else. My movement, Addis-Europe is nearly three decades old, but I’ve eagerly charted more on the memories of the last two decades. At the latter, I’ve frequented further my visit to Ethiopia. New and fresh elements about Ethiopian art in my artistic becoming is discernible a matter. It is a twofold task, knowledge makeover and renovation and a reunion between old colleagues. I also reflect upon Western art (knowledge); investigating the Western art analysis on African art. I try to provide my account, i.e. what the newest trend of art in European countries looks like, i.e., Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, France and Germany, (as I visit these countries’ museums and galleries regularly).
As a critic and art theoretician, what has been the relationship between your writing and art practice? Are you planning on publishing any more books?
I am one of those artists who have a voracious reading appetite; therefore, my studio functions also as a library where I can quietly read for a long time. I have a writing desk where I exhaust myself reading and writing. I don’t only research and read African artists, although I write about them. I would like to publish books. The possibility to do so is there; and I am negotiating. There are some publishers with which I’ve come in contact with, but I am now first into publishing part by part my PhD thesis, which is voluminous. It has so many original materials, and it is a good thing if more people know about it. I have also few other texts written on a number of Ethiopian artists who have left us remarkable testimonies on the art world, in the yesteryears and now as we speak. I am likewise writing on individual artists who have a pioneering ambition working on new mediums for Ethiopia, i.e., in installation and performance art who have added to their profiles an international exhibition track records; artists who have pushed the edges.
With your recent visit to Addis in mind, how have you seen the art movement/scene in the city? Has it changed in any way in the past few years?
The art movement in Addis has always been one of my persuaders to return again and again to my hometown. Although, at my travel this time, I have not visited many shows or studios, so I would limit myself to a mere four. Dawit Abebe’s Mutual Identity at Addis Fine Art, Bole; a group show, Negari/Manifesto at Guramayne art center; Photographers show at Goethe Institute, organized by Michael Tsegaye, and last Tafari Teshome’s show at GKD art center. I participated also in Mekele University’s International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20), which took away my studio visit time in Addis. I follow news about almost all the shows in Ethiopia and beyond, via my Facebook blog attributed to “Gebre Kristos Desta, painter and poet”. I run this Facebook blog on Ethiopian art so that people as much as possible post news on Ethiopian art, in general on African Art. In this way, my knowledge on Ethiopian art remains updated. We are fortunate to have this troika artists who have emerged to the top, like Afewerk Tekle, Skunder Boghossian and Gebre Kristos Desta; but there are also other arenas that voice about our great artists who have embarked upon like no one else in the world art museums, in the international art biennales, and at the global art fairs, and in top art galleries. Achievements of successful artists are often noticed by their colleagues but not spoken about. Since every artist’s walk has a strenuous side to it; s/he prefers to shut-eye. Tadesse Mesfin, the Ethiopian painter and art educator, pulls a direct link connecting ‘the now’ with the ‘Modernist painting language’ of the yesteryears. He is indebted to a big credit for that with Eshetu Tiruneh and Mezgebu Tessema, perhaps each and every one of them bidding his contribution to the African/Ethiopian mimesis art project. Tadesse Mesfin’s direct link particularly is apparent with Gebre-Kristos Desta’s easel painting, especially with the latter’s out-of-studio practice. Later on, Tadesse would be known for his extremely large theatre stage designs, which sunlit outdoors as advertisements of the National Theatre Company bestowed him fame in the mid-1970s and beyond. We can view contemporary facts and metaphors with artists like Gebre-Kristos Desta and his contemporaries, among which some semi-abstract artists who also used a strong figurative trend in their art. This statement on the mimetic is a word of enunciation that the Addis Ababa artists’ trend began in situating a theoretical framework and a method to hold on the gist of representation.
What do you think needs to be done promote the development of the arts and the emerging artists in Ethiopia?
Is there enough experienced staff to run these institutions, after all, if we get these specific spaces? Museums and art halls, as we see them now have become easier to be built. Art understanding is more difficult (to build), as it is a complex substance, as every time diverse art forms are made, and a lot of art get produced, added to what we have amassed in the long and broad shelves of world art history, in the vast creative art sills of mankind. Art knowledge needs extended training. Art and modern culture-savvy people are candidates for the task. I think deep research is needed on how to secure these art education institutions in Ethiopia— public or private. Of course there are highly valued art currents that continue working for at least half a century. Three types of art spaces have accelerated the art scene in Ethiopia to thrive; these are: the first one is the commercial galleries that cajoled artists to produce selling art stuffs and handicrafts. In line with “airport art” (Nairobi), memento souks in Ethiopia’s cities, sideward window art galleries festooned at the Churchill Road in Addis Ababa. They are beautiful; also generating income for people who rely on manufacturing and trading in them. The art and handicraft industry has its vivacity. From gold to silver smith, to woven Shemas— authentic Ethiopian wears, to basket making, to commercialized handicrafts and second-hand or recycled art items, copied icons, paintings and sculptures produced as folk art items for sale. All counts; carved stools and tables from ebony or other types of tropical woods included. Decorative as well as useful potteries also jam sideway shops of Churchill road as well other Addis stores. These are cultural hubs that sensitize the minds of Addis Ababans to love their culture. Therefore, they should be supported too, as the elite parts of visual arts, painting, sculpture and highly fitted (aestheticized, original) object designs. The second is the less (no) commercial galleries dictate possibly if not the artists’ subjects, but their exhibition titles hopefully to navigate through art market. They compromise with the artists’ self-claimed world; personality, power, aesthetic wandering and professional plea. They recognize the artists’ subjects and style must be kept intact to the artist, while they try to open new venues to the artists and the public by proposing reasonable revenues to cover expenses; and stay in business. These galleries are unfortunately few and seem not to grow in number, as they were handful and remain to be so still. Thirdly, thee foreign cultural institutes [French, German, Italian, English, Russian, (each in respective order of their far-reaching manifested activities and practical impact)], which reintroduce a modern pragmatic culture, realizing their own cultural policies towards their locales have assisted levitating up the visual and podium culture fronts of Ethiopia. For more than three decades these institutes together and one after the other, played a vital role in helping Ethiopian artists form their unique idiom as artists. But now, to come to your question, what should be done is, something beyond our grasp. It seems like the well-off countries’ culture is so influential in our world that we can’t anymore sustainably run our own shows devised by us. Hollywood cinema, Classical music, American Jazz, art and design schools, Modern art museums, Fashion design (catwalk is a brandishing synonym of this haute couture), and Contemporary art galleries all trail influential cultures’ tiptoes; (avant-garde to passé), since our education and cultural policy regards the influential foreigners cultural positions as cutting-edge. So, our submissive complaint resumes. Ethiopia’s visual and literary legacies are of erudite nature and are highly convincing as confined knowledge edicts; however, they were not devised to serve the new age. There exist thousands of resplendently designed illuminated manuscripts in Northern Ethiopia, (i.e. numerous churches in the Tigray region alone could be pondered as living museums keeping art masterpiece of great values). These include wall paintings, icons, manuscripts and other art and artefacts. Some pieces are even considered rare find; pioneer work in the whole world, wedged perpetually to their (in)accessible natural features. Overall, the north Ethiopia plateaus are natural domes that preserve Ethiopia’s greatest cultural assets, and also adorable landscapes that have carved up the Ethiopian collective psyche. Perhaps we have not marched enough strides to emulate and adopt these Ethiopian natural, cultural and artistic archetypes to form our present global identity. Although some of our artists like Worku and Brabrara Goshu, Skunder Boghossian and Zerihun Yetimgeta have used these homebound cultural materials as a springboard to create their art; and still other artists like Wosene Kosrof walk in the dense, visualizing the Geez script or its aesthetic motivations to alter a more contemporary and eloquent resonance. Still it looks it is not enough to impart and experience art at the utmost level. Every region in Addis should open exhibition spaces, and cybercafés could be integrated there too to make use of computer art. Art market should be open and caring to all. To start with, graphic art prints, and sketches can reach probably all humble buyers’ living rooms. Financially able and economically weak communities should frequent visiting art exhibitions and theatre halls. Plans should be devised to help people enjoy and live with art. Everything has to be tried. Commercial and public run art spaces must enter a game, convivially to compete for survival. This is my formulation drawn to a promising Utopia. My vision therefore to circumspectly reach it. Art history should be studied in high schools, colleges and universities. Art and art history must not be a peripheral or an auxiliary subject; it has to be, I think, a main study subject like philosophy, political economy and psychology to help people top up their lives. So this way, they could balance life to reach out to their higher spiritual fulfilment not its containment. These classes are of extreme relevance for a university community. Simply put, it is unacceptable to be proud of your cultural and artistic heritages, and not learn knowledge (specificities). “Know thy culture and history” campaign must be initiated. Otherwise we are doomed to fail. Discouraging our born artists, by not educating them the things they owe to preserve. Art education through mass media must be taken. If we do this correctly, it can be fair to say, we can make ourselves a civilized society. Otherwise raising a small amount of money, like 50 Birr to purchase handicrafts that end up as defect goods, the next day, doesn’t make sense. We can’t build a proud nation that loves Art and admire artists, and respect creative people in this trivial gesture. A self-reliable person that understands visual art, passes knowledge and educates others about his/her artistic heritages is the one I should cheer him/her up. Development of art is not an easy matter and for the faint hearted. It is a socially integrated project; worth to masses where all are inspired. In the ancient times, nations used to enlighten and educate their people through religions. Art was there, but was subservient to religion. But what is nature if it is not contemplated through the arts? Corroborating the influence of Byzantium in Ethiopian art is the practice of not a few Ethiopian modern artists that is also to say, these artists haven’t conjointly emphasised on different subject matters. Some writers reflected on our geographical physique, steep ravines and raised plateaus; and these gullies and rocks have shaped our collective mind, thereof our sentimental music and sober paintings. Prior to Ethiopian artists, I also look into the works of East African artists, like the Sudanese and Kenyan artists. Art theories and history of art not only interest me, they are vital elements in my aesthetic and artistic search. I compare Ethiopian art critiques with the western art knowledge paradigm. Seyoum Wolde, Kifle Beseate Selassie, and Solomon Deressa are continuously and consummately paralleled and correlated with mainstream art theorists in my theoretic research. The 'native African art”, YeTalsam Seel, or talismanic art animatedly deals with ‘The Small Format Art’, which comprises the intimate appeal factors in the human rationales. The Talsam Art/Medicine as a cultural and anthropological subject delves into African belief system and philosophy or to be exact, to rim myself in my subject, into Africanist aesthetic inquiries. I see some Ethiopian and Sudanese artists, like Skunder and Zerihun Yetim Geta, Kamala Ishaq Ibrahim using these folkloric elements and also many young artists who follow suit.