African identity underlies Sheraton’s Art of Ethiopia

"Ethiopian 10 Birr note as partly ripped away, revealing market scenes behind, by Fasil Assefa"
Ethiopian 10 Birr note as partly ripped away, revealing market scenes behind, by Fasil Assefa

By Katie O’Hare

The transformed ballroom of the Sheraton for Art of Ethiopia 2011 safely reached the standard of an international art auction. And international it was. A melting-pot of faces and languages mingled against the backdrop of the black-cloaked walls.

The cries of three American teenage girls running past some particularly vibrant paintings shouting, “I love this one, I want this one,” invited a raised eyebrow or two from a group of Ethiopian artists milling around the entrance, enjoying the vibes of the African rhythms coming over the loudspeaker.

It was difficult to know where to begin. With over forty artists contributing from six to ten paintings each, and with the artists’ work mixed across the space, there was nothing for it but to wander freely around the maze of canvases. It became evident that some artists showed continuities within their work whilst others displayed their ability to use differing styles. One such artist is Wondwosen Beyene, in whose work a great scope of ability in opposing mediums was evident. Waiting For, a striking charcoal portrait, contrasted greatly with The Effect of Light in Life, an idyllic treescape scene in which Wondwosen displays his talent in depicting light and shadow. The Village Life was again different; reminiscent somehow of Constable’s The Hay Wain.

Another artist, Sofia Kifle (Fine Arts MA holder from Howard University) describes herself as “a gypsy who tries to tell eyeful stories by means of color, brush strokes, movements, shapes and characters.” Her work stood out in a subtle way from the majority of large, brightly colored canvases at the exhibition. Attached to the inside of one of the maze’s columns around a quiet corner, three small acrylic mixed medias; The Crucifix, The Other Side and Conversation V and Conversation VI, draw in the viewer with their miniature simplicity; her emphatic silhouettes speaking of the emotions of love and pain, and as the artist herself states, they speak of “the stories of the Africans, the stories of the Americans and the stories of the world.”

Fasil Assefa, a young artist, who has been recognized as an ambassador for peace by the Universal Peace Foundation, spoke to The Reporter about the work he submitted for Art of Ethiopia 2011. His influences for these set of paintings include the vast market area of Merkato; in particular during times of Orthodox Christian holidays. “I am always impressed by the colors during holiday time in Merkato. Space is difficult at this time. The cars and busses have difficulty passing through the narrow, crowded streets and in my work I’ve fantasized that idea.” This explanation by Fasil can be visualized in the painting Merkato, in which he paints in an almost cartoon-like style, using iconic imagery of Ethiopia, such as the Anbessa bus and blue mini-busses. An Ethiopian Airlines plane can even be seen in the background. Against these images of modernity, the artist juxtaposes the style of Orthodox church art, to maintain the feel of Ethiopian identity which pervades the painting. Here the busses are squeezed together to create a sense of crowdedness.

Fasil further expresses this in his poem, ‘Colorful Merkato,’ in the lines:

‘Merkato colorful Merkato

The melting pot of people

The hustle and bustle

The place for traders, purchasers and beggars

All in one at Merkato.’

Fasil uses a more impressionistic style in a set of three paintings which seemed to be making an economic comment. 10 Birr 1, 10 Birr 2 and 100 Birr 1 depict the Ethiopian Birr note as partly ripped away, revealing market scenes behind. The figure on the ten Birr note is a young girl, but in his paintings, Fasil depicts her as a girl has now grown into an old woman, in order to create some kind of narrative. “When I was a teenager, the girl on the 10 Birr note was the same as she is now. I asked myself, why hasn’t she grown any older?” As well as painting her as an older woman, Fasil shows the sefid (table mat) the girl is working on as completed.

Hana Yilma derives inspiration for her paintings from everyday activities such as bathing and going to the sauna. Her introspective, self-conscious puts her in a similar vein to European artists Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas. She explains to The Reporter about her set of paintings; Within The Shadow, which were shown at Art of Ethiopia. “Within the shadow could be anywhere. I am using the idea of shadow in this sense to be a metaphor for past or future experience. The shapes I use are deformed or exaggerated. Most of my paintings are concerned with introspection. They make us consider the difference between what we think of ourselves and what we really are.”

Ed’s Note: Exhibition’s catalogue cited for some quotations.

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