Abstract Footprints of Time
Article: Karen Obling
Photos by: Israel Seoane
Last month a comprehensive show in four parts was presented at the renowned contemporary art space, LeLa Gallery, in Addis. Two of Ethiopia’s promising young artists, Ermias Mazengia and Eyob Kitaba, showed a body of recent works under the title “Transitory”. Planned by gallerist Lilly Sahle and curator Leo Lefort, the exhibition opened a new chapter every Saturday featuring two group-shows and one solo-show with each artist.
Ermias and Eyob have been friends for more than 20 years and work closely together. They are each other’s critics and share large parts of their lives and thoughts with each other. Both are graduates from the Addis Ababa University School of Fine Art, and have an abstract and experimental approach to the art of painting. Since their graduation they have distanced themselves from the strong realistic and figurative tradition in Ethiopia, and moved towards a greater playfulness with material, techniques and the reduction of forms. They are studio-artists and constantly experiment and develop. Their works feature no recurrent themes or subject matters, nor do they offer any given narratives. Instead a formalistic and deliberate play with dimensions, depth and texture dominates their artistic vocabulary. Each painting is the result of a process expressing the artist’s understanding and interpretation of a certain moment in time, hence the title “Transitory”.
More than a clue to an interpretation of the works, the “Transitory” frame served as a general concept where two artists can find individual as well as common ground. For Ermias and Eyob the transitory is expressed and processed in different manners, but with the one common feature that it concerns experiments within formalism. Both artists have had numerous solo and group shows in the past, but the show at LeLa Gallery marked some tangible transitions in their work.
Rhythm and repetition
Ermias works intuitively and constantly seeks new ways of understanding himself and what he is doing through the art of painting. There are no fixed themes in his work, and no specific things inspire him. He picks up things and thoughts from moments in time, and transfers them to the canvas. His work is as abstract as it gets, because the abstract is compatible with the way Ermias can express himself. He explains, “… the abstract is not about hiding something from the spectator, about having a secret or forbidden agenda. The abstract is merely about reducing elements to the minimum and to express what is on my mind in a simple form language.”
Working with a simple form language does not necessarily create a simple result. Ermias’ strokes and colour palette is vivid, rhythm and repetition dominant, and layers and dimensions creates great depth. New perspectives keeps appearing and the eye can rarely find rest in his paintings. The repetition of strokes, colours and elements in a rhythmic combination creates an at times almost poetic or musical experience. Ermias admits that he listens to music when painting. Jazz, classical music or hip hop is on the stereo, but music is not actually an inspiration to him, and is not reflected on the canvas. It just keeps background noise out, focuses his mind and makes it easier to follow the flow of the moment.
The exhibition at LeLa gallery represented a transition in the work of Ermias. He was a protégé of renowned Ethiopian painter Yohannes Gedamu, who passed away two years ago. Ermias used to work mostly in oil, and a mix of oil and acrylic, until Gedamu gave him acrylic paint. For the past year he experimented more with acrylic, and the exhibition at LeLa gallery was the first time he presented work only in acrylic. Oil has a rich texture and thickness that acrylic lacks, which often makes it more challenging to create depth on the canvas. But Ermias masters the acrylic like he masters the oil, and the result is as dynamic and deep as his oil-works.
Questioning the idea of the painting
Like Ermias, Eyob tries to transfer his experiences and ideas of a certain time to the arts. He has a conceptual approach to the painting and tries to distance himself from traditional ways of thinking and seeing, and is constantly questioning the conventional idea of a painting. One of the key features in the work on display at LeLa gallery was the inclusion of ordinary or non-art materials to the painting. He used to work mostly with ink on paper, but expanded his artistic vocabulary to include tiles, blueprint, plastic-glass and canvas. Materials usually connected to architecture, entered the canvas, and a conceptual combination of the two- and three-dimensional occurred.
Although the works presented had great variation, there was a red line through the exhibition. Large paper works in a mix of acrylic, ink, pens and markers, were cut to smaller individual pieces and presented on blueprint with a plastic glass plate cut in the same shape on top of it. The blueprint served as a frame that lit up the work with its characteristic glossy surface, and not one shape or frame was alike. Eyob repeated the shape of the cut-out paper-work to canvases in the same size, and created a rhythm and recognition between materials and art-works in the gallery space.
Characteristic for Eyob’s work is furthermore that it has no up and down. He works on the floor and paints from all directions. There are no fixed perspectives to hold on to as a spectator, and like the work of Ermias new things constantly pop up when looking at it for a while. Eyob breaks with both the traditional understanding of the painting, and also the traditional frame. With a blue print framing the cut-out paper, and a classic wooden frame sticking out behind and in the edges of the uneven tiles, the very notion of the frame is deconstructed and rethought in new materials and concepts. One could almost expect the works being displayed in the ceiling or on the floor of the gallery, since it already challenges several conventional ways of creating and presenting a painting.
The abstract is not easily comprehensible to the spectator, and sometimes Eyob and Ermias are as abstract when they talk as when they paint. The level of metaphoric language is high, and their answers are not always clear. This somehow explains why these two artists had to work with the abstract – the realistic would simply not suit their temper or ways of thinking. But the more they talk it becomes clear that beneath the metaphoric and abstract there is something quite simple. As they both say, the ideas are not grand nor are the narratives of their work given. It is all about the process. The concept of Eyob and Ermias’ abstract approach is to transfer whatever they have in mind to the canvas, via reducing, distorting and eliminating forms and elements, and to create a new form language. Their paintings are thus strictly formal and conceptual, and form, experiment and process are beyond subject matter and meaning.
Footprints of time
Ermias and Eyob agree that art is vital for every society, and that the work of an artists serves as a footprint of a given time. Eyob says: “Artists are interpreters of moments in time, and can provide a common ground for understanding and new dimensions”. However, being an artist in Ethiopia is not a walk in the park. Many artists are forced to work commercially, but Ermias and Eyob refuse to go down that path, “we are not willing to compromise with the quality of our work, or let money corrupt our artistic outlook.” One of the problems they point to is that art does not get the attention from society it deserves, and that too little is going on in Addis. It is mostly foreigners, who buy or collect art from Ethiopia, and most art thus leaves the country eventually. Ethiopia and Addis Ababa has yet to develop a local creative class that engages in and collects contemporary art. Galleries and museums concerned with contemporary art are also few, as are funds and support to the arts. The road to an actual art industry in Ethiopia is thus long and bumpy. Talented artists like Ermias and Eyob, and galleries such as LeLa who support and promotes contemporary art and artists, are slowly paving the way towards a brighter future for the Addis Ababa art scene.
One thing that comes to mind after the exhibition at LeLa gallery is how the four shows and the work of the two artists challenge conventional and traditional art- and exhibition forms in Ethiopia. Ermias and Eyob’s brilliant abstract art-work in the creative set-up at LeLa Gallery was vibrant and dynamic, and served as a fresh and daring touch to the somewhat conventional art scene in Addis Ababa.
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LeLa Gallery is a contemporary fine arts space dedicated to the presentation of visual and multidisciplinary art in Addis Ababa. It was started in 2007 by Lilly Sahle and curator Leo Lefort. For one and a half year the gallery resided in an old factory building, until they had to vacate it in October 2008. In early 2009 Lilly moved to a villa in Old Airport, and the gallery moved with her. In April 2009 LeLa gallery re-opened in an airy and inspiring living-room gallery in peaceful and private surroundings.
With an eye for the experimental and innovative LeLa Gallery presents between six and eight solo and group-exhibitions featuring established and up-coming local and international artists from September through June. In between and in the rainy season Lilly display a mixture of paintings from various contemporary artists she works with.
Lilly on Ermias and Eyob
Ermias and Eyob are both abstract and their work compliment each other well, but they use very different techniques and with different results. They are both constantly developing and growing as artists. Eyob used to work only on paper, and for this exhibition he experimented with tiles, blueprint and canvas, and the result is very interesting. His work has an experimental character and the product is new and exiting. There is so much texture and depth in his work, and if you keep looking new things will constantly emerge.
Like with Eyob it has been very exciting to see Ermias experiment and work solely with acrylic, where the expression is usually more flat. Acrylic lacks the texture of oil, but Ermias creates the same depth as with oil. I consider Ermias one of the strongest contemporary artists of this period.
Directions: LeLa Gallery is located in Old Airport on the China Embassy/Ghana Embassy/Swedish Clinic road. Follow the LeLa signs on the road.
Open Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 6pm or by appointment. (Tel.: 0116535506)