28 February 2011

Ethiopia: Modern Blends with Custom in Double Exhibit

Visitors at the opening of Lemma Guya's exhibition at the National Museum (top) take photographs of some of the artworks depicting, from left: Emperor Yohannes, Emperor Menelik II, Emperor Haileselassie, Mengistu Hailemariam (Gen), and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Another exhibition in the same venue shows the work (bottom) of 20 Ethiopian artists with, from left: "Godana Tedadari" by Yonas Kenea, Girma Gebra's "Baburu," Skunder Bolggossian's "Untitled," and "Development and Progress" by Tadesse Gizaw.

It is not everyday that one is afforded the opportunity to view a large body of work from both living and dead local artists in the same venue. Modern techniques and subject matter blend with the traditional in two separate but simultaneous exhibitions held at the National Museum Exhibition Centre, located on King George VI Street in Sidist Kilo.

Lemma Guya's latest exhibition opened on Thursday, February 24, 2011. The artworks are all painted on leather, some are skins with the hair still on. The subjects for this exhibition are mostly political leaders from the country's past up until the present, thus excluding President Girma W. Giorgis, who attended the opening.

"It is an intricate technique," said Menkir Bitey, senior curator of the Ethnographic Collection at the museum. "While the portraits are simple and realistic, the artist uses the natural colour and texture of the hair on the hide as part of the portrait."

This is an interesting technique, one of many when also counting the myriad different styles found in another temporary exhibition, featuring Ethiopian artists who worked between 1940 and 1970 in the Ethiopian Calendar, and who have all passed away, ongoing on the top floor of the same building.

The stairs open up to ink prints by Yonas Kenea, with the next small hall containing watercolour portraits by the same artist.

Only about 50pc of all the almost 100 pieces on display form part of the permanent collection of the museum, located on the same compound, according to Girma Bulti, an artist and the curator of the exhibition. The works forming part of the exhibition that were not donated to the museum were collected from the possession of the artists' friends, family members, and schools, and selected on the basis of reflecting a unique style, he said.

A number of works by Gebre Kristos Desta is on show, not least of which is "Television," painted in oil on board in 1969, depicting mesmerising coloured planes.

"This is his own style, falling somewhere between abstract and realistic," said Girma.

Yohannes Gedamu has a similar style; not abstract, but not realistic either, as illustrated by his undated self-portrait, in which a human figure in discernable.

Agegrehu Engida was the first Ethiopian artist to start using modern painting techniques, i.e. oil paint on canvas, according to Girma.

His "Self-portrait," dated 1951, flanks "The Shoe Makers," dated 1977, by Solomon Feleke, showing an old woman begging from a shoe maker and a shoe repairer, but they are all three so poor that they cannot help each other.

Another self-portrait is that of Tasew Herenet, whose portrait of his son is also on show, as is a self-portrait, dated 1973, of Endale Haileselassie, pallet in hand and donning a black mourning band.

The mourning band was not meant for a family member who had passed away and the picture was painted shortly before he tragically committed suicide, a fate that also befell Tasew and Fikru Yelma, according to Girma. Fikru's main interest in his work was family relationships, the curator said.

"Trustfulness," painted in 1983, depicts this, with an elderly father sitting with a dutiful, albeit reluctantly so, daughter at his feet, expounding wisdom she is not happy to hear.

Mintiwab Geta's "The professionals," borrowed from the AAU, is a more upbeat domestic scene, depicting three women making pots in front of their huts. The work of the only other female on show is that of Tasew Cherinet. Tadesse Mamecha and Skunder Bolggossian also form part of the 20 artists.

"The idea of the exhibition is to commemorate these late great national artists," Menkir told Fortune. "The new generation has no idea about them and we should remember them as well as their contribution to art."

"We selected the artists and their work on the basis of their unique styles, styles that were not copied from other creative works," Girma, who is also an art expert at the museum, told Fortune.

Like Girma, many of the artists whose work is on show used to be employed by the museum. The museum started its activities by exhibiting objects from archaeological excavation missions, which led to the establishment of the Ethiopian Cultural Heritage Administration, in 1976, which in turn resulted in the opening of the National Museum. The museum houses artworks and archaeological finds, such as the fossilised remains of early hominids, the most famous of which is the partial skeleton of "Lucy."

In keeping with what is old, the unique style of some of the artists on show is the subject matter. Both Hailemariam Feleke and Million Tesfaye depict traditional scenes from Ethiopian cultural life.

Hailemariam's "Erque," an oil painting measuring 112cm by 160cm, shows a husband and wife after a quarrel with the elders of the village, visible in the background, mediating the conflict. The woman looks despondent and sits digging in the earth with a stick.

"The mediation was a very traditional way of solving such problems," Girma told Fortune.

Million's "Kalemhala," painted in oil, in 1990, measures 95cm by 110cm and depicts a man taking a military oath; with his comrades in the background, he jumps over a sword lying on the ground.

Emaelaf Hiruy's "Untitled," dated 1948, measures 122cm by 212cm, in a depiction of landlords, dressed the part and sitting on horses on a plateau, overlooking a battle in the distance, between their own class and tenants. Some poor peasants have made it onto the plateau and can be seen begging for mercy, as they face superior weaponry.

However, the modern and traditional clashes in his, also "Untitled," 19th century style portrait of a black woman donning traditional Ethiopian dress but a modern hairstyle.

Daniel Touafe was, perhaps, inspired by work much older than that, in his "Three Phases of Africa," dated 1908, depicting slavery and the spiritual life of Africans, in a scene reminiscent of the hell scenes in the "Last Judgement" painted in the late 15th century by Hieronymus Bosch, an Early Netherlands painter whose work is characterised by the use of fantastic imagery to illustrate moral and religious concepts.

Religion as such does not form a strong thread among the themes covered by the exhibition. It contains spiritual aspects, and while many are traditional, they are still relevant, even 50 years after being painted.

In "Rainy Season," borrowed for the exhibition from private ownership, Mesfin Mariam depicts a city street in the rain, in a scene that could have been painted last year, and reflects the people bracing against the downpour in Addis Abeba, in a scene that could happen even today.

Out of the total, the 3D sculptures number five. The sculptures include two undated, untitled heads made by Mamo Gebre. Tadesse Gizaw's "Fishes," made in 1969 from bronze and copper depicting abstractions of swimming fish while his "Development and Progress," made in the same year 1969, is mounted on the shape of Africa, with presentations of the chemical composition of matter on top.

More technology can be found in Girma Gebru's "Baburu," painted in oil, in 1961. It depicts, as the name suggests, a train, stylised to lines, enabling the viewer to see right through the missing parts, to the landscape beyond.

The exhibition upstairs will remain open until March 7, 2011, while Lemma's closes on March 6, 2011.

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