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Monday, April 28, 2008

On the contemporary art trail

have not yet mastered the layout of this blog - so please forgive me - the first photograph is a view from the amazing Emerson Blue Hotel which will be opening later in the year, in Zanzibar. Second image is an old lady in Zanzibar, third shows sculpture by George Lilanga and the fourth is the Coffe Machine in the bar at the wonderful, historic and friendly Taitu Hotel, Addis Abeba, those looking for luxury should look elsewhere.

I apologise for the gap in the service…I have been busy travelling and, I have to say, having a most interesting time. Many of you know East Africa – for those who don’t – I thoroughly recommend it – especially Zanzibar and Addis Abeba. The spelling of the latter is correct, Ababa being meaningless baby talk introduced by some European or other – at least I think that’s the case.

I am so far behind in my reports about individual artists that I thought I would do a ramble about my travels and artists that I have come to know about. I hope to go back and feature some of the main artists here in more detail when I have time.

Starting in Zanzibar I went to meet Anita Sita of the Real Art Gallery in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Anita has a serious collection of work by the renowned Tanzanian artist George Lilanga and she and her husband used to buy work from him in the last years of his life. She also has good collections of Makonde sculpture and other contemporary art from Tanzania and Uganda. I was surprised to find that Anita is only 28 years old and intrigued to learn that her late father was from the Makonde tribe. Her gallery is well worth a visit if you ever go to Zanzibar, which is, it has to be said, one of the most charming places on earth. Beneath are some of the wooden sculptures by George Lilanga that I have recently bought for the Daraja Collection in London.

I have spent the last three weeks in Addis Abeba. This has caused jealousy amongst friends and colleagues. My complaints about the air pollution in Addis – which combined with the altitude makes life slightly uncomfortable – fell on deaf ears.

I first came to Addis in about 1993 just after the loathed Mengistu was ousted and went off to become Robert Mugabe’s personal advisor. I went on behalf of an aggressive book supply company who had head hunted me as the man to get them a library supply contract in Addis – am I rambling? – I had just given up smoking which slightly spoiled the fun of staying at the Hilton on expenses. I remember good looking Ethiopian families luxuriating by the pool while most outside the Hilton had distinctly lean and hungry looks. I have no idea what happened re the contract – mine was a luxurious courtesy call. The book company eventually went bust owing publishers a million pounds.

Addis then, seemed pretty deserted. Dotted with little blue pickups converted in to buses playing tinkling Ethiopian music, with polite passengers and no hint of Kenyan style crotch-in-your- face overcrowding. The women were, and of course still are, extraordinarily beautiful and charming – and are not in the least bit afraid to receive and give smiles. On my first trip I met a young man on the street who was desperate to get out of Ethiopia as he said young people were being press ganged in to the army, he showed me round Addis and I remember his pleasant demeanour. I remember a rather quiet city, largely bereft of young people, slowly awaking after years of the Derg.

Addis today is in the throws of massive, some would say brutal, change as major road building projects plough through this very large and rather grand city in all directions – all built by the Chinese. There is an unbelievable amount of building going on. On one side of Addis – geography never my strong point – there is a vast new housing area covering what was grazing ground before for miles – the scale of it reminds me of Dubai’s extravagant and surreal development. I heard that the Mayor of Addis has a plan to turn his city in to a new Dubai…when I ask Ethiopian friends where all the money is coming from – is it the Diaspora? 500,000 Ethiopians living in Washington state – something like that anyway – is it “the Americans”? Is it China? Is it the World Bank? Is it – and I must be careful what I say here – Blogspot is banned in Ethiopia because of politically critical blogs - is it, lets just say, ill gotten gains? No one has a clue! Some think that there is far too much building going on and that there will be a glut of office and residential properties. I don’t know. What I do know is that many of the beautiful old buildings that have not been pulled down illegally are being boxed in by high-rise blocks, which is sad. And I know that very few diesel-engined vehicles are properly serviced so that smoke enthusiastically belches from most of them. And as a result the parking girls as the parking ticket girl are known, wear shawls across their face making them look like friendly terrorists.

After that vaguely critical ramble I shall balance things by mentioning that Ethiopia is known as a good implementer of government programmes. There is real civic pride there which is rare in the rest of East Africa – and this ensures that projects whether they be school or road building do get carried out, and for all my dislike of roads – good or bad - and pollution, I salute that determination and discipline.

And now to art….

The Ethiopian art scene is extremely interesting. There is a wealth of talent working both inside Ethiopia and in the Diaspora. Julie Mehretu – who was born in Addis in 1970 but has not lived there since childhood, being Ethiopia’s biggest global “player” as I am tempted to refer to global artists, as. She is exhibited by the White Cube in London, she is also a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship $500,000 “Genius Grant” – more on this later. Her work is extraordinary.

Skunder (Alexander Boghossian) , who died recently, is recognised as the father of Ethiopian modernism – his work is contemporary, yet steeped in rich and ancient Ethiopian traditions of symbolism and Talismanic art. He left Ethiopia before the Derge and never returned – creating a focus for Ethiopian artists in the USA. His cousin Wosene Kosrof is still very active in the USA, and is just about to have a show with Bill Karg at the Gallery of Contemporary African Art, New York . There are numerous and excellent Ethiopian artists working in the Diaspora – one of these is Mickhael Betthe Selassie whom I was lucky enough to meet at the Asni Gallery in Addis on a short trip home. Mickhael trained originally as a scientist in Paris before discovering his vocation as artist and sculptor. He has lived and worked in Paris ever since, producing extremely individualistic pieces of art – mostly in the form of papier-mâché sculpture.

Mickhael Betthe Selassie outside Gallery Asni and one of his small paintings

There are two main contemporary art spaces in Addis currently - the well established Asni Gallery run by Konjit Seyum and the much newer Gallery Lela owned by Lilly Sahle with Leo Lefort as curator. Both are very impressive (both spaces and people!) and have regular interesting shows - whilst I was there Daniel Taye exhibited at Gallery Lela with powerful new work as well as some older paintings. Taye is a painter's painter - very much a Bohemian as his studio suggests - see below Lilly and Daniel in Daniel's studio. The only concern I have about Daniel is the clear evidence of influence from many of the great European artists - Rembrandt, Van Gogh (both of whom he openly parodies) and others, not that I think that African artists should not derive inspiration from Western artists should they wish to do so - but I get the feeling that Daniel's own style has yet to fully emerge - that will be hotly disputed by some -but it's my opinion - in a way its very exciting because as the slogan on the back of many a truck in Kenya goes - "The best is yet to come".

There is much to be said about both galleries - but time limitations mean that I have to summarise by saying that Addis now has real infrastructure for contemporary art thanks to the dedication of a number of key people.

I was introduced to Meskerem Assegued, the respected African curator and anthropologist, and Elias Sime the artist with whom she has been working with for many years. Elias’s show “What is Love?” – opened at the Alliance Francaise, Addis Abeba the week after I arrived. The distinguished American Theatre and arts Director and film maker, Peter Sellars (interestingly, also a recipient of the Macarthur Fellowship) had arrived in Addis especially to get a preview of Elias’s show – Elias had worked with him in 2006 at the New Crowned Hope Festival, part of “Mozart’s Vienna”. Sellars was ecstatic about Sime’s work – indeed he went down on his knees to him in the exhibition hall! Elias is a modest man of few words, his English is not particularly good, unmarried, childless – utterly dedicated to his art.

His show is extraordinary. Comprising of an installation made up of 107 stuffed goatskins most of these intricately embroidered, and 21 two dimensional works. These made from cotton stitched on canvas and in some cases, flattened bottle tops and toys. Apart from attending exhibitions in the U.S.A. and Vienna, Elias has never lived outside Ethiopia. His work is extraordinarily detailed and labour intensive and amazingly, unlike many other artists, he does all the handwork himself. When you look at his intricately stitched canvasses – one could be reminded of an epic poem masterpiece – not one stitch is out of place. Though not at all loquacious, Elias talks interestingly about his work - I’ll give you an example – the work below – which I don’t yet have a title for but which was produced a number of year ago.

I spoke to Elias about it,
“Is this street kid?” I asked
He replied along these lines:
“ Sometimes life doesn’t got the way you planned.
You see the young man has a jacket on but it’s the wrong way round.
He is fighting to turn his life around.
I am saying that you can turn your life around – it is possible.
He is on the process of doing that.”

I believe that Elias has been very fortunate to collaborate with the sensitive and culturally knowledgeable Meskerem Assegued. There is a gap in the African contemporary art world – certainly in East Africa – for curators of her standing. And here is an extraordinary artist who has been able to flourish on his own ground, in his own rich culture, with professional curatorial input. Wonderful!

Elias’s work can be seen in the Studio Museum, Harlem, New York, where he is part of the FLOW exhibition of contemporary African art.
There are plans to take his latest show, to both Paris and New York. It seems that we will be hearing much more of the remarkable Elias Sime.

See also:


Anonymous said...

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Dark Angel said...

Emerson Blue? Is the hotel formerly known as Emerson Green, later became 236 Hurumzi?

btw - this is the prospective ambassador of InterNations :-)

Ed Cross said...

No its a new hotel - Emerson and Green fell out big time - cant give you the details here but not pleasant - Emerson is bouncing back with another hotel cheekily called Emerson Blue and most of the walls are blue! Its going to be incredible. Am thinking of having an exhibition of Richard Onyango's work there next year to coincide with the Music Fest that Emerson started. Ah ha so thats who you are - quie a scary name - was a bit alarmed when I saw it - but now I get it. The original Emerson green now Hurumzi - I stayed there - its an amazing building but its not well run anymore - thats a fact.

RV Dealer said...

I liked all the photos and I feel so much concerned for that old lady.

Danny said...

No Ethiopian I know spells Addis Ababa with an "E". "Abebe" is the European spelling, not the other way around.

putri-bali said...

it's nice pictures here. i like to see more, sometimes may i put on my blog....?
well thanks

Ras said...

I'm left with the impression.....,Art is life and Life is art.