Ethiopia: Eyasu's 'Private Reputation of Colors'

opinion

"All I think about is art, that's my life," Eyasu Telayneh says a few hours before his exhibition opening at Alliance Ethio-Francaise. "This is my childhood dream. I knew I'd go to art school and that's what I worked towards for years. I'm happy with this life."

Private Reputation of Colors includes 24 abstract and semi-figurative paintings, the majority of which Eyasu produced in the past year. Strong colors and clear straight lines make his works distinctly recognizable pieces.

"I get asked what these colors signify and I tell people I work spontaneously. The color choices are spontaneous. But the more I think about it, I realise it's my own subconscious making these choices. Colors don't have common or public thoughts; so I named this show the Private Reputation of Colors." he explains.

Perhaps there is some secret these hues keep to themselves but Eyasu has found a way to tease them into revealing some aspect of their truth. These abstract pieces have a sticker-like distinctiveness. The clear colors and geometric forms leap off the canvas.

The exhibition includes semi figurative works Eyasu made as his final art school project almost 4 years ago. "These works are about intimacy with animals, specifically dogs. I wanted to show where I came from and how I got here."

Although works in between these two distinct styles are not shown here, it's clear his practice has evolved over the years. These older works are more recursive, different from the clean straight lines of his more recent paintings.

"I listen to music as I work. I think of this like music. Like jazz. It's without vocals or lyrics but you still get something from it. Aesthetics is the main goal."

The clean application of lines and color makes certain parts bounce off the canvas like 3D images. Some pieces spring out as otherworldly landscapes or cityscapes. Others feel like slivers of a distorted color spectrum illuminated in narrow sections until it falls to incoherence. Big bold brushstrokes of varying colors indicate the determined intention behind the artist's choices.

"My works are expression of my inner necessity and never entirely narrate a certain subject, but are intended to engage viewers in a conversation," writes Eyasu in his exhibition statement. "My work begins from the external world. In every situation, my eyes and mind never stop taking in visual images. Looking at a dining table, my eyes dart around absorbing large or small impressions, through rapid cognition my mind collects different inputs which are used for my work."

He goes on to write that an important element of rapid cognition is thin-slicing, the unconscious ability to make decisions and find patterns on very little information. "Thin-slicing is part of what makes the unconscious so dazzling. Different ideas which I sketch from periodicals remain in sketch books and are later combined with other ideas until they are ready for work and contribute to the birth of better, more in depth images."

Eyasu uses initial sketches on paper as a guide but the actual application of paint on canvas is gestural and spontaneous, he explains. "Creating communicative, high quality, transformative work is my goal."

His works are oddly exhilarating, like one has been privy to a previously unbeknown world of images. The blood red, rich turquoise, elephant grey and moss or olive green appear consistently but a sudden shock of yellow or dark blue are mesmerising.

Private Reputation of Colors is Eyasu's first solo exhibition. Fresh off a win from the Emerging Painting Invitational prize in 2020, the annual international art platform dedicated to supporting and recognizing the excellence of emerging painters in Africa.

"EPI opened a lot of doors for me. I made more connections, reached a bigger market." he says. Following his first place win, Eyasu exhibited his works at Barnard Gallery in Capetown.

Abstract art is not as desirable as figurative and traditional style paintings in Ethiopia. Eyasu attributes that to ignorance among buyers. "People want to sell so they make marketable things. They need to make rent, to live. They forget their own work in the process. I understand how that can happen. Art school taught us to paint but not to sell paintings. There's only one gallery that represents artists and the problem is all over Africa." the lack of infrastructure to support artists beginning from the small number of galleries and the lack of financial stability especially among young non-figurative artists has been to the detriment of the industry.

Eyasu worked outside of the art world for a year and half following graduation, planning on getting the financial security to become a full time artist. He describes that period as a waste of time, but one that reminded him of why he loved painting in the first place.

"The aesthetic scope is widening so there's a lot people are working on. I like abstract art, minimalism. I see that influence in these monochromatic paintings," he says referring to two black and grey pieces each with a devastatingly thin red vertical strip running down the middle.

Eyasu has made Entoto his home and gallery and finds living close to nature has nurtured his artistic practice. "When I see the composition of birds on a tree, I use that as inspiration because I'm using my artistic third eye to see them. I want to create relief through my work. I want to renew the spirit," he said in a previous interview with The Reporter following his EPI win.

"Living between entoto and the city is interesting. Sometimes I lose the ability to just communicate with people if I've been at entoto too long. The traffic, the people, it's different. Spending 5 days in the city and going back to my studio becomes new too. It's good to have the variety though."

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