Engaging art in society, an interview with Henok Getachew
I first noticed the 27 year-old artist Henok Getachew in the spring of 2011, when I attended an exhibition of the Netsa Art Villagers at the Alliance Francaise in Addis. Actually it was pretty hard not to notice Henok’s artwork since it drew attention to itself in a very specific way: in the middle of the gallery Henok had placed a donkey, and on top of the donkey was a laptop displaying one of his video-works. As you can imagine this animal was not exactly comfortable in its new environment, which caused it to yawn some loud and persistent howls that these stubborn and hard-working creatures are known for. And of course this didn’t go unnoticed within the white walls of an art gallery.
The installation embodies one of the important objectives in Henok’s work: creating a connection between society and the art-gallery. While the donkey came from Mercato, he video featured recordings of a specific part of the Addis-cityscape: the colourful cocktail of books, pamphlets and magazines rolled out for sale on the streets of Addis, and the sound was a reading of the sometimes quite incoherent texts featured on the magazine-covers as well as the sounds of the city, giving it a quite humorous dimension for the Amharic-speakers.
The link between the donkey and the laptop is quite simple; they are both communicators, even though they have different paces and scopes, and seem to be from different times, they live side by side in contemporary Addis, with equal importance. The donkey commutes from one part of the city to another with various goods, in a slow but certain manner, and a laptop communicates between continents and countries far apart in a fast manner. Almost needless to say Henok’s installation, as well as his other works, are rooted in an interest in contrasts, e.g. fast and slow, which makes sense living in a city where contrasts are so outspoken as they are in Addis. But the installation also embodies Henok’s desire to work outside the gallery, to meet the people of Addis, to get inspired by the speed of the city, and to take his art to a new level.
Educated from The Addis Ababa University of Fine Art in 2007, where the primary line of teaching is giving the students classical skills of fine-art drawing, realistic painting, and sculpturing, Henok has since his graduation experimented in various media. At a certain point he found him self trapped and limited within the classical canvas. When painting his inspiration primarily come from the highs and lows of his life, and his paintings are always emotional, and thus almost too personal, he explains. In other media such as video, performance or installation he is able to add more dimensions to his work, which help him discover himself, his surroundings and new ways of conducting art. Furthermore these ‘other’ art-forms are often connected with a fixed concept, which suits Henok. He is fond of the meticulous calculation other media forges, but always seems to engage his emotions in whatever media he works in.
Life and death
Henok often finds himself returning to the themes of birth, presence or death, which is obvious in particularly his video-works. As we talk I realize that the cause of all three themes might relate to a childhood fear of dying. He has has reflected on and processed this fear so much through his art that he doesn’t find himself scared of death anymore. Instead it seems that he has come to terms with death as a new birth, and the presence as everything in between the ending and beginning of life.
The video above is entitled ‘Embryo’ and is a recording of a performance Henok did while having a residency in Leipzig, Germany in 2009. This video clearly shows Henok’s fascination with the beginning of life, conceptualized in the embryo, the early stage foetus. Even though it might look that way, the small foetus is not rolling around in agony of being created, and being trapped in a small womb of the mother. ‘What if the embryo was dancing inside the mother, dancing of life, and of presence’, Henok explains. And this is the key to the performance in the video – the dance of life the way he imagines a foetus maybe would do. The dance of creation. An expression of the instance of birth.
But Henok also contemplates on the instance and dance of death, and the two are similar in his world. While continuously drawing in his sketch-book he tells me how he used to play a scam with death, and still does it about once a week. Just before sleeping he freeze his whole body for 20-30 seconds, and simply ‘plays dead’. All the energy this act compile inside of him is released in the instant he moves, creating a strong feeling of life, and to have fooled death. The video xx below is a recording of Henok’s ritual concurring of death, showing only the movement of his toes. He explains that when he is in this ritual-state-of-mind these movements help him stay alive, to not disappear into death. The soundscape that he later added is the dreamy and distant noises of people, music and a campfire, that underscores the almost unconscious sense created by the visual effects of the video.
Challenges of the Ethiopian art-scene
Henok is one of few artists in Ethiopia who has had the opportunity to take his art abroad, and his three-month residency in Leipzig had a great importance for him. He explains how meeting other artists from around the world, seeing exhibitions, and experiencing another country, awakened and inspired him. And it seems that it have given him a taste of living an international life.
He tells me how he for many years has questioned whether or not he belong in Ethiopia, or if he in fact could belong anywhere in the world. This should not be mistaken for a denunciation of his Ethiopian identity, for this is not the case. Henok wish to add elements from outside Ethiopia in his art, and he feels that this is possible if he moves, and that he will profit on living in another country. When asking him if this urge to move has something to do with the local art-scene here in Addis, he answers, “there is not enough opportunities for artists in Ethiopia to fully experiment, and do what they want. But you can stick out for doing things differently.”
Even though he is of the opinion that the art-scene in many way is conservative and lacks dynamics, he says that it has also experienced a development and growth the past years: more festivals are coming, foreign curators are visiting, and there is more writing of art. But these seem to be developments that come mainly from the outside, and looking inside the Ethiopian art-scene tradition and dogmatic seems to be very strong, perhaps too strong. The country and the culture are conservative and traditional, and this is perhaps why the ‘painting’ is the artistic media number one here. Because of this strong focus on painting, artists don’t think out of the box enough, as Henok states, “there are too much emphasis on beauty, and the showing of skills, and no deeper concern of concepts.” In the future he hopes for developments that will create better fusions between the past and the future, tradition and the contemporary, because he believe that culture is not a given, that it should develop and fit with time, and that is should be possible to fuse tradition with what you see.
But this ‘dilemma’ does not only have to do with development of the culture and art-scene, this also has to do with commercial issues. Like anyone else artists have to survive, and use the skills they have to do so. The Ethiopian government doesn’t give neither much attention or funding to art, and when only a very limited part of the civil society does, there are many – particularly economic – challenges to overcome as an artist. In many ways they have to adapt to the market-demands to survive, because they too depend on making money. And when the demands on the Ethiopian market are in big favour of the painting, this can in some ways explain the dominance of the canvas.
Engaging society and art
There is nothing wrong with being a commercial artist. In fact probably all great artists are commercial, and many artists go down a commercial line to feed their more personal and experimenting projects. At least that’s how it works for Henok. Along different teaching and commissioned jobs, he is currently working on different projects he hopes will give him residencies abroad.
One of them is to build a moving house (see sketch above); to mount a house on a car, and move it around the city. This is to symbolize the moving and replacement of the city and its people, and the rapid changes that are happening. In relation to this he also has an idea to create an art-installation in a public bus; to take out most of the seats, and create a theatre in the back of the bus. The bus will drive its usual route around Addis, picking up people that will enter the installation, and get quite a surprise.
Another project is building interactive football domes. Inspired by the fact that football creates communities across borders, because this sport makes people shout at the exact same time all over the world, Henok wants to build different domes of recycled water-bottles in the shape of a half football, and have people play inside of it. Every time the ball hits the wall a football soundscape will be released, as a reminder of the sense of community these sounds relate to.
All of these new ideas are ways of putting society in direct but unintended contact with art, and this seems to be at the core of Henok’s artwork. His ideas and visions are very present, but it is hard to get financing for the projects, especially in Ethiopia. Maybe that’s why he is looking for opportunities to go abroad, to be able to realize some of his ideas; to develop more of these projects, but also to return to Ethiopia with fresh inspiration. But while developing a variety of performances and installations, you can still find Henok painting in his studio. Using more media has calmed his claustrophobia of the canvas, and he doesn’t have any clear media-preference.
But particularly his work outside the canvas is what makes him stick out on the Addis art-scene. One can thus hope that Henok will keep experimenting with various media and society-engaging artwork, and that he will realize some of his projects in his own country, and of-course that he will keep returning to Ethiopia, with inspiration from the outside. The often too traditional and conservative art-community needs to be challenged, and Henok is among a group of local artists that do this well.
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