Ethiopian Painting as Visual Art Refinement: Transformation from Modernism to Contemporary Culture

The artistic production of the following five Ethiopian artists, who are active today in Ethiopia and beyond, is my focus for this essay. These artists’ works have somewhat a representative character signifying as a whole the visual culture of East Africa in the last two decennia. Although, art practice is important equally as art production, but it is the later that has resulted from different media, including the artists’ strong spirit – to create art – and program is particularly relevant, no matter the existing paraphernalia. Besides, the unseen and unnoticed resilient work ethics is superb an inspiration and is equally considered valuable as a smooth treat just like the art object.

The art movement of these five artists – some working in an organized way in group, and still others engaging themselves independently – has helped cultural life in African cities to thrive. Thus this East African artists’ glowing performance has its great relevance; just like i.e., one of the five most interesting artists in my essay, Tadesse Mesfin’s works show us. The last epitomizes a spectacular evolution as an artist, and his art is not unrelated to Ethiopian Diaspora artists’ art style producing a remarkable headway in the visual culture. Tadesse considerably contributing a strong form of versatility in figuration art remains probably the most recognized artists in Ethiopia and beyond. With his figurative style, Eshetu Tiruneh’s (1952) versatile drawing mastery is equally appreciated. Wossene Kosrof (1950-), Tadesse’s (1952-) Addis Fine Arts School class mate; Girmay Hiwot (1948-), Yohannes Gedamu (1947 -2010) and others with their extended art projects have inspirational stories to tell. Tadesse now just like his old friend, Addis Art School colleague, Eshetu Tiruneh live and work in Addis occasionally surrounded by keen followers and admirers. Both Eshetu and Tadesse have inherited the art legacy from the nationally celebrated and internationally recognized Ethiopian artists troika: Afework, Gebrekristos, and Skunder and also the much renowned pedagogue Alle Felege Selam. The first three are formally Ethiopian Modernism representatives whose whole works’ artistic ideals turn back and forth through times commencing with Afework Gebre Yesus’ 1st phase modernism and the present art setting.1

Three of the 2nd group, three of the following five artists are well known artists in Ethiopia who have studied during the exceptionally tumultuous revolution time known as the Dergue period. Mezgebu Tessema, (Enewari-Debre Berhan, 1960),  Behailu Bezabih  (Addis, 1961),  Bekele Mekonnen (Debre Zeit, 1964), Assefa GebreKidan, (Axum, 1973) and Elias Sime (Addis, 1968). All are currently working in Addis also as teachers with exception of Elias Sime who is a full time studio artist. Assefa although a sculptor just like Bekele using recycled objects, he displays these objects always in interior spaces by putting light on them with head lights strategically directed on his 3d pieces. He is from another generation, just like Elias Sime, a multi media artist, mostly active in 2d pieces (2 dimensional) in non-conventional manner. Assefa and Elias who joined art school after the Dergue period are internationally also active. We will review now with great interest these artists’ works, as they promptly reflect the sign of their time as their activities are at the same time connected to Ethiopia and the international artistic currents.

The subjects of Ethiopian traditional painters were vital to represent the tradition. Lines and colors freshly meant to work upon the mind of the people, as to the Modernist Ethiopian Troikas that we have seen above, also to the traditionalists who are welcomed in the contemporary art world as one of their time’s creative forces. So that is why the praise to Merigeta Gera Mawi and Gedeon’s art is harder in the current art critical discourse. Neither Kifle Biseat 2 (a defender of Abstract Art in Ethiopia) nor Seyoum Wolde (an advocate of Modern Ethiopian Realism) has ever thought of the revival or restoration of Ethiopian traditional art in firm terms. Here again, the theoretic rehearsals of Seyoum Wolde and Kifle Bitseate-Selassie loom large, permitting the likes of these art scholars and aesthetes – in theory, to close the circle of their researches.

Lately as “Artists, Thing Makers”, my label used for installation artists, the following authors were classified as serious, and unrestricted by 2d paintings. Behailu Bezabih’s work was reviewed by Girma Kidane; Tibebe Terfa’s YeAddisAbeba Teretoch was a valued subject of Sebhat Gabre Egziabher completing a duo mural as YeAdisaba Teretoch; the painter Tewodros Tsige Markos as one of the pioneers of abstract art was analyzed by Kifle Bitseate’s seminal book, Abstract Art in Ethiopia - arguably the only published art book on Ethiopian Modern Art for a very long period of time and Zerihun Yetimgeta’s stories are brought to light by Seyoum Wolde. All have left us such uplifting stories to be enthralled. The weaving looms 3 made from bamboo woods as painting supports from Zerihun Yetimgeta and Behailu’s Carved Beds 4 made from ebony are indeed new presentations units at the closing stage (the beginning of another New Modern?) of Ethiopian Modern Art, which is about a century old.

Language that validates the material: Bekele’s ‘found object sculptures’

Bekele Mekonnen, with exhibitions in Italy 5, Germany and U.S. is one of the most articulate artists in the plastic art language that validates the material value of ancient Ethiopian monuments in the verve of Modernists. Bekele transforms these ancient Ethiopian monuments into actual metaphor, but in an un-protracted rhythm, persuasively doing sculptures. The biggest accolades are yet to come to one of the youngest members of Ethiopian artists who are fortunate enough to be known in the international arena. These are, Engdaget Legesse (with a number of tours to Europe), Assefa GebreKidan (as participant, in international art projects launched in places as far as Senegal, France, UK, the Netherlands) and Elias Sime (with shows in Ethiopia, Senegal, Austria, US) are ‘must remember names’ in Ethiopian art currently.

Assefa ‘collects’ translucent plastic garbs (disused buckets) and turns these into art

Currently, how Assefa Gebrekidan, alongside a group of Londoner artists – a group running a project motto called ‘The Way We Work Now’ – exposes his large-scale sculptural installation.6 Ermias Kifle-Yesus another installation artist, trained in Addis and London presently works in Belgium. Ermias was planning with his Ethiopian artist colleagues to realize a project around Addis Ababa, and he was also working on this project that might link up his contemporaries, nine Ethiopian artists working across on a range of media, including film and video. Ermias Kifle-Yesus hopes to create a ‘collective narrative based on the issue of foreign aid and what the new road (Ring Road) means to them and to Ethiopia’.7 The main qualification in all these young and middle-aged artists’ works is their unreserved manifestations of African culture, and added to that, their individual experience. The emphasis on ideas that originate from societies’ social and economic relationship which are basic is valid an argument as Seyoum Wolde puts it: 8

‘Ideology and Philosophy study the subjects of nature that dwell or make their existence on it (…). Art has plenty of spans and rooms for maneuver. Every single part of its subsections has its specific tops and regulations to corroborate.’

Unambiguously being too self-centered and self-absorbed, Western Cultures dissociate themselves from ‘others’, fearing ‘their art would be biased (contaminated) or lose its original character’, if it appropriates foreign material. To enlighten these items, we should therefore analyze two mediums that the Western artists are involved in: Painting and photography. Gombrich is doubtful even for these two dimensional medias, whether they can fully reply the artists’ hunt for truth.9 “Should we believe that photograph represents the ‘objective truth’ while painting records the artists subjective vision – the way s/he transformed ‘what s/he saw’? Can we here compare ‘the image on the retina’ with the ‘image on the mind’’? Tadesse’s followers remember Yabello, a series of paintings – art research – and homage to the Southern people (South Ethiopia). His ‘Flight to the South’, although unconnected with the North European artists flight to Rome or South France, is a thought derailing condition not an Art Brut’s pinch. Tadesse Mesfin with his Sidama paintings, e.g., investigates like Gauguin’s women as lightly draping themselves with colorful saris on their thighs and waists – half naked just like the Maoris.

Tadesse Mesfin: pure ethos
. A highly idolized alcove of worship: Atete, Mezgebu’s setting of coffee ritual

One approach to gather this information would be by clarifying the works of some artists who emulate or appropriate, both the African ancestral world and the Western realist techniques (Realism). I would like for the prior, the ancestral world, to refer to the works of Ethiopian artists who are actively using a mimesis technique. Mezgebu Tessema, e.g., with Atete a painting about a sitting woman wearing ceremonial dresses posing herself in roasting coffee beans – in the Central Ethiopian highland tradition – articulates the mastery of color. Mezgebu posing his model gently treats her with a local makeup, which is fabulously beautiful. Dressed up with feast dress, Kemis10 and Netela. The smoke blurs her image in the sober interior. Mezgebu’s painting is lucid and most prompting to intimate the smell of the roasted coffee. With scents welcoming us to the sitting woman, to the tang or joie de vivre, this careful painter’s subject has a delightful presence in the public’s attention. Sedately do, the incense and the myrrh mesmerize us with the heavenly marvels and the earthly worries, as the Christian liturgies do appropriately impart this allure to their devotees.

In this aspect, Mezgebu’s work is not alienated from Ethiopian highland, which is his subject proper. Moreover as a rebuked public, the African collective mind absorbs the ponderings of those ‘represented’ mothers and sisters whose goddesses’ stature equals Isis’.11 Mezgebu’s contribution in catching this visual art and popular mythology, the asset of countryside life is enormous. We can see this in Hewan’s leading role in Ethiopian countryside landscape. (Hewan is Mezgebu’s wife, and Senait, his daughter) Senait’s portrait as an innocent child is also very strong and has a credible place together with Tadesse Mesfin’s ‘portrait of a young man’ and Eshetu Tiruneh’s ‘Ato Gebre’ and Afework’s Nishan. There should be shed light also on another span of time or understanding: How for example, a uniform consensus of realism is reached by various systems and analyses of this conduct that artists like Tadesse Mesfin, Eshetu Tiruneh and Mezgebu Tessema commonly employ of in their work?

Power relations and economic features of one society are a point in case existing – and artistic practice is something different we can only imagine about – situations, however domineering and outperforming they could be, we should not give up to face others. Our decision shouldn’t be devised away by these social standards of one group, which has shown economy and military domineering.

Skin Deep Complexions: superficies and artifices, small heaps of absorbing pigments

Gera, Wossene, Jullie and Acha, some of the most renowned artists seize this moment of tranquility, I believe like them to honor a passing period and reflect the end of an era, Ginbar le Ginbar (an Ethiopian expression, tête-à-tête), to welcome its substitute and reconsider new creative instants and new labor for the coming era.

‘The Barometer of Contemporary African Modernist painting’ 12 (as was once called Skunder by Art In America magazine) was a precise tool. And let’s hope our artists will hold a lengthier bar – the measure unit to observe the artistic sustenance – in the fore coming century.

Being Skunder’s measure unit, movement, ‘Zennoian movement and space’, (Kifle Bitseat, 1975) Skunder is trapped by time to be its sublime painter. However our artistic (social?) ‘Conspiracy theories’, a pioneer of the modernism movement Afework G/ Yesus’s place remain intact as a pioneer of Modern Art Movement in Ethiopia. One of the ‘subtlest’ painters, and ‘sharp commentator’ and realist that the Ethiopian recent history of art has ever seen, Afework G/ Yesus, for the magnificent scene of Menelik’s court painting favor, was so extraordinary, daring to present the nude (figure) catching the profound spot in special sustenance. Light or dark skin pigments meant always concretely something. Despite the tradition, Afework painted what he saw, as a man from lower echelon painting could have seen. He stroke a deal with himself and only with himself: To represent the queen as he saw her, not a ‘fair skinned’ lady but (…), she was after all, a bit blacker. The truth of small heap pigments is the most absorbing one – a fact that never run away from the mind of the artist. 13


Mulugeta Tafesse, 2007



1. Many scholars agree on the whole Ethiopian Modernism, to start off its journey with Afework Gebre Yesus (also written as G/Yesus), pioneering it; if not in a technical sense, but in an ideological and thematic understanding. Although with different prefixes and usages, modernism in art started early on as Modern Art Movement, Modern Art Trend, Modern Art Tradition, etc. I have read Eshetu Tiruneh, Esseye G/ Medhin, Bahru Zewde, Mesay Kebede’s accounts on this subject. Read e.g., Eshetu’s Yethiopia Fanawogi Zemenawi Sealiwoch, (Ethiopian Pioneer Modern Artists and the School of Modern Arts Movement: Short Review 1879 – 1983). Amharic, 1993, (2001, European calendar) p.p. 2 – 4, 14.

2. Among those Western educated scholars on African art, Kifle Biseate Selassie’s essay on Skunder has brought yet an unobserved viewpoint to many, but still to a very few more demanding researchers who’ve dug deeper into the knowledge of Modern Art, however on another layer. Exhibition Catalogue, Skunder 1975, Belvedere Art Gallery, Addis Ababa. Kifle Speaks of Cezanne and the Surrealists’ and Skunder’s dream or rather the puzzles of Skunder’s Zebegna (House guard) trying to solve the mysteries of Skunder’s painting universe. Mollifying his silent word, Yihima Hilm Aydele Getoch (“Is it not this a dream, Sir) ”?! (Amharic).

3. Raymond A. Silverman, [ed.], Michigan State University Museum, East Lansing in association with the University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 1999. The weaving looms of Ethiopian weavers, Ilto and Arba – two doko weavers, Mary Ann Zelinski – Cartledge and Daniel M. Cartledge, see illustration of the looms in p. 240 and text in p. 246. The Dir is Ethiopian fabrics, processed in the wefts and the warps to be weaved into shema or netela (Ethiopian wears). Zerihun avoiding the fabrics, but directly paints over the weaver’s (Shemane, Amh.) loom (Mewerweria, Amharic.).

4. Ibid, Silverman. See, fig. 6.5. A bed carved by Menjiye, in Ethiopia: Traditions of Creativity. That is the same type of bed Behailu presented in his shows. These beds are typical of the beds that are carved by Minjiye that were in common use in Ethiopia for many years. Traditionally all Ethiopian house holds use to have these type of wooden beds before 19th century factory manufactured metal beds (Yebiret Alga, Amharic) were introduced. But we notice these beds as souvenir pieces, now. Yetefer Alga, as it is known in Ethiopia, is a stabile bed made of crisscrossing animal hides stretched to the wooden bars that in turn are supported by the four wooden poles, which are actually end up as the legs of the bed. Always the two legs at the upper side, the head side (Rasge, Amharic.) seem to be a bit bigger and decorated more and the foot side or the lower side (Egirge) seem to be smaller and decorated less. Alula Pankhurst’s photo, a bed carved by Menjiye shows this extraordinarily craft and ornament where body has to repose. I see in this photo even the indication I have explained above that the ornament on the bed legs of the Rasge – head side – has a stronger form, which look like the head of the Axum Obelisk, while the Girge has an impromptu small sphere like bulges. See photo fig. 6.5. p. 127 upper plate.  (One may draw or project Dias to demonstrate this).
 Behailu just paints on the legs of beds and makes an object art also known as assemblage, because these beds are hand made every particular piece looks like a sculpture. Some of these beds look like even the Romanian modernist Brancusi’s sculptures, samples of podiums he carved to create autonomous poles – his hall mark in the everyday – where his saw blades left their marks into the wooden trunk leaving it into simple geometries and spherical bodies.

5. Bekele’s show from May 6 – 17, 2002 in Italy at SACI Gallery International Studio Art Center was especially memorable for starkly colorful found objects. The show was presented as a result to his artist in residence at Palazzo dei Cartelloni, Via S. Antonino 11 Firenze. During this period Bekele Mekonnen was a director of the School of Fine Arts and Design, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

6. See Assefa G/ Kidan, exhibition flier notice, ‘The Way We Work Now’, Assefa Gebre Kidan, et. al., 22 July – 11 September, Gallery 3, Camden Arts Centre, London, following Assefa’s “Africa 05”. Press response, The Guardian, JL. July 16, 05. Press release, Camden Art Centre, 2005.

7. Daphne Warburg Astor, Modern Painters, International Artist and Culture, Social Realism, Ethiopia’s emerging contemporary Art Scene, June 2005 edition, p.p. 49-50. The author of this essay has seen also a group show in Brussels, organized by the Cameroonian artist Bil Bidjocka in which Ermias Kifleyesus has participated. Ermias presented an installation that inspects the reminiscences of his youth from Addis.

8. Seyoum Wolde, short introduction, ‘The Fundaments of Marxist Aesthetic Regulations: Concise Principles of Socialist Art’ achieving plasticity of the art academies’ ‘plastic reality’, rules is Seyoum Wolde’s coining after the Russian Pre-Socialist Realism ideologues and writers of aesthetics, Chamber Printing Press, Addis Ababa, 1980, p. 3.

9. Ibid, Seyoum Wolde, also see E.H. Gombrich, in ‘the sense of Order, a study in the Psychology of decorative art, Part I, Decoration: Theory and Practice, II Ornament as art’, Phaidon Press Ltd, Oxford, pp. 59 – 60. Gombrich’s writing referring to Ethiopian iconography as explained by Jacques Mercier, gives details of the Ethiopian scroll paintings’ symbolism, especially in the ‘four Ethiopian popular images’. Yet in ornament as art, in another study we also read Adolf Loos’ ‘Ornament and Crime’ disregarded by Gombrich. Here we can draw comparison with the works of Seyoum and Gombrich explaining the ‘classical tradition’ as a sign of aesthetic superiority, vis-à-vis the ornament or ‘this false employment of the word decorative’, E. H. Gombrich, Part III, Art and Psychology, Truth and the Stereotype, Art and Illusion, 1996, Phaidon Press Limited, London, pp. 91.

10. Qemis and Netella are respectively a dress and a shawl – a pair of garments – worn casually or on holidays in the Ethiopian highlands by women. A robe or a shawl (the later often is not worn inside a house) is by itself an artifact; although, occasionally a work of art, often beige white dress with fine Ethiopian highland embroidery, it is stitched with ‘soul touching’ ornaments [women give order embroiders who keep Tilf (lace work, Amharic) models, in their workshops or the embroider directly creates an authentic design for his clients]. The designer’s item is set, as always expected with agreement by the client’s choice and it takes many months to finish the work. Qemisses, Ethiopian women’s dresses are woven by the Dorzes, (Ethnic groups inhabiting in the Southern Region of Ethiopia, also called earlier, Sidamo province), but the Telafis (the lace makers for the same dress may be Tigreans or Gondares or Wolloyes (all coming from the Northern Ethiopia provinces) putting their last hands on them, making them absolutely a vogue object, to an extent, almost to be idolized. With slight difference of finesse and ornamentation through out the highlands of Ethiopia, these embroideries as dress code vary from region to region, cutting across many layers of societies’ class codes. The ornamentation beginning round the neck centrally passes the abdomen and often flows straight down to the hem of the dress. There is also a circumlocutory lacework, horizontally running broad strip accenting the same patterns of the vertically running embroidery. How thick, colorful, rhythmic, and intense, compositionally should be the band of the embroidery is often times a meticulous decision taken by the Telafi (lace maker, Amharic) also relying on the specific regions’ styles. It is surprising how contrasting are in this aspect the customs of European weavers and lace makers’ gender specific business. In Europe women are exclusively in this trade, whether in small manufacturing workshops, or in the factories or at home; while in Ethiopia, weaving and embroidery (Shemanenet and Tilfsira) remain the occupation of men.

11. Thus, in Mezgebu’s painting synopsis, and symbolism, i.e., meant transfixing Mezgebu’s model and interior attitudes into the realms of the Adbar (Ethiopia’s ancestral guardian – goddess).

12. Calvin Reid, Art in America, March 1994. “The work of Ethiopian Artist Skunder Boghossian consistently, served as barometer of contemporary African modernist painting.”

13. The Ethiopian painter has the hard assignment given to him by a sitter, with the order: ‘Asamireñe ingi atasmesileñe [‘beautify me, but do not capture my likeness (don’t detect my true behaviors or don’t read my face, but get rid of the resemblance)’]. An artist’s effort in portraiture is admired when he leaves out resemblances (details of the sitter in catching the real feature and the physical characteristics of the sitter can never well be understood). In a painter – model relationship, no sitter can think of (even in photos) his/her features are attainable to the artist.



II Nestler


Voluptuous Skies, exhibition statement at A & A Gallery, Hasselt, Dec 1902- Jan. 03

Seriously, on a regular basis, I give credence to a society’s saga, not only when it is positively functioning. At times, I reflect society’s depriviations, its’ endless sacrifices, its’ nightmares and declines and sometimes not when caught by imagination. I purposefully toil with satie brisky brush works (I work in monochrome to one but to other, I’m destined as a color virtuoso – by any standard these views are not criticism at all), saturating my 2D plane in soft and lively tones, I am put in an awkward position and can’t help but create voluptuous surface. But some thing of more a benovelence is, the story of Painting, in general – its universal and eternal dimension, in space and time. It has not died, as some commented it did, not seeing its hard core surviving. The painterly notion, the soft mass in its desolation live up to wide range of things which are evoking (in) us. By all consideration, If not agitated, I’ve a mild nerve to lend from other’s ideas that allume hope. I want to make my art reach to society, in diverse aspects.

Oblique angles

I am adapting my self to European Artistic Colloquial – trend is the equisite term – in fact, if I do not paint on canvasses with brown or grey tinted backgrounds, which are finely treated like wool or velvet wrapped precious Ethiopian articles (as the cover of my Grandpa’s Dawit, which I have seen in his old living hall where he murmurs his prayers at the early morning hours), attached against the wall. What could have I done, if I haven’t chosen painting is not a matter that I can’t predict. The cinematic art? A film may show up heavy business to the 3rd world enthusiast. What would remain then, as an option is writing a play. While painting, I write with clear to me scribblings, i.e.., street scenes, running clouds and characters that subdue this momentum. Be it in their ferocious conduct or simply physical actions ignoring passers by, for example.

Continuing Nestling – painting labour

Am I the peripheral artist who has come a long way? It would be difficult to be grouped in a single stroke. Quoting Guatari and Deleuze or their Italian Colleague Antonio Negri, their term, “peripheral” may probably place me, as a “peripheral” man to the Western culture; but I’m not, I think, the ‘peripheral artist’, specially when I speak, about the (my) objects and the fine essence of painting and the constructs that lay behind it, which furinish it to be overall working. You may ask if this is my artistic intervention, it will be easy then to explain. You are requested to consider my two dimensional suggestives as three dimensional; in action, fresh marked and intuitive paralleling mine with your ( collective or otherwise single) gesture. This assumed, my preposterous ideas swing back and fro to be released openly; to enter the painting, a way behind the medium and technique interests. We may ask together any thing about pure painting: is the precise matierdecipherable? Can it be hold as a complex process, and how do we re-read painting, selfless painting, great painting, painting laboured with pain and tremor? Of course without fetishising it as a morbid social object. Except the serious wit and playfulness, infact my paintings don’t succumb on these moments: a porcelain cup remains always itself and a coffee pot Zanzibar is only itself, so are a saucer, a biscuit and a brown lump of sugar. God bless Baba Banga, when she plucks or delves into the future laying her hand on brown sugar, to surpass times and assemble some precious moments that are gold enframed; likewise the painter’s enigmatic condition when he is very very lucky.

M.T. 8. 12. 2002


A Photo Salon’s Masquerade: the African popular subject in photography


Photography, an agency of light, is the deep-seated allure of its reserve and it can hit us, concurrently by this vitality it kicks in imagination – for permanence. The moment of truth, appears when photography operates (is used) efficiently, submitting the best ‘minute’ from the historic encounter.

The duty that the photographer secures with enthusiasm, persuasion, belief, mindfulness, insinuation and all (any) of these sequences elapsing in random wonder witnesses that flash. This moment is appropriately benign in the productions from the most ordinary African Township Photo Salons to widely acclaimed African Photographers (respectively large and selected circles), Cinema Directors and New Media Artists.

Artists like Magdalene Odundo, Fredéric Bruly Bouabre, Seidou Keita or Haile Garima use with their art mediums (ceramics, painting, photography and cinema) raising in the global art scenario African sensitivity to a macrocosmic level. Conscious of exploring their ephemeral world and the ever changing reality, these artists advance essential inquiries about humanity. To shape their plots, they criticise and expose the myths and anecdotes of subduing societies which tie them up not to meditate and work for benevolence of the common good of humanity. Unlike them, most of us are unaware or indifferent of these disgraceful and rediculising theories. One straight example can be, descrbing briefly, in pejorative terms, the colours and physical characteristics of Non Europeans, in one sweeping brush as ‘Black and white – Orient and Exotics’, or reducing all aesthetics and art patterns of non Western cultures to ‘Flat’, and nothing else ‘Full stop’. So, to some extent, the usage of the pigment black, by dominating cultures traumatises Africans, while unscrupulously symbolising ‘ill will’ in the people who are considered carrying the most melanin of the human breed under their skin.

We don’t overlook the tolerance and wisdom of Ethiopians, ie.., as to how they balance both indigenous and foreign beliefs (religion and myth which descends from Semitic and Zarathusturan culture and language roots is an ‘old flame’ in the continent of Africa). These foreign myths, vis-à-vis ages old African belief, trigger burdensome predicament – for their self centred critical notes and extreme puzzles – to the dark complexioned Africans. The language of subduing societies, in historic plan follows the same rule of law in misusing; in general reality and knowledge for their subjectives; ‘exquisite’ and ‘innocent’ prototypes, at the same time it characterises pigmentation of other people as an inferior. A category or a notion of degrading. From this outcome, we may determine, subjects classified in a ‘lesser light’ are seen obscene as sub cultures. In contrast to the prior, we observe in local African religions and traditions the following – the African myths’ wholeness, not marking creation’s phenomena in ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ lines.

To learn by heart all these discriminating stories, as from the Holy Spiritual Scriptures also from philosophical tracts and historic documents was (still is) stigmatising black people. Undoubtedly this chapter – as in the myths also in history – to the Afrcan artist is a haunting experience, specially when inspecting details from tumultously written subjects in the forming of world ideologies of class theories, including by ‘jewel’ European thinkers, such as Hegels and his matches, from other outspoken poets, anthropologists and psychologists as well, who assert quite often the “dark” tint as mysterious and problematic.

The visual world becomes susceptible and be interpreted (while)“flowing”; as in Deluge 1,‘a simple family album that you can flick through’ with affecting places and thrilling stories – equalizer of laced structure with vast substance. To be more apparent, Mesfin does not dispute Salem’s vernacular picture, when he says:

‘… a photograph can’t hold the wholesome nature; leave alone the complex soul of a person….. it has no cutting sharp edge as a human eye; an eye is unsurpassed in registering the real look. Still, photography can be a deserving instrument. To shoot a portrait in a staged room; putting a piece of white paper on the posing person’s chest pouch, can pass for a handkerchief and eventually you can think of a photograph as a real Gemena Shefagne* ’ 2

In most circumstances, light is of two fold for us; apparently when it is meant to work:

  1. as a technical term, a physical and chemical device which deals with art, photography and cinema etc., processing a DGZ (developing films in Day light Gelatine Silver print procedure) etc., and the flash light of the studio photographer
  2. the abstract myth and language interpretation behind which an assertion is made as credo to make us excited, emotional or furious.

Even, in the belle époque of science and culture, in Europe, throughout the Renaissance, the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment, the high priests of art and philosophy haven’t achieved superbly well; as they were constantly blocked by creeds of powerful institutions. They weren’t safe and sound, neither working with their instruments and mediums in studios, laboratories or libraries; nor have they escaped from the Western paraphernalia, a construct of human emotion and prejudice, as they are costantly being shut off with Zarathusturan, Judeo-Christian or other customs. Most Ethiopians like their neighbours in the African inland or the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula across the Red sea, have embraced – surprisingly enough, it is like slapping your own face – these myths which also takes a crucial place in European erudition process, together with cultures from the Mediteranean soil (North African, Phoenecian and Graeco Roman …) which lie underneath.

By common consent, we all know it is the West European culture that is identical with Zarathusturan and Semitic cultures whose acumen is obsessed with light – rather, a treacherous symbolic reading from ancient zeals – which filterd through times and has profited badly over the rest of the world’s “generous, pacific and serene cultures”. Largely, the practice of quoting from, reading or living with the Semitic or Biblical myths and legends in Eastern Africa, is not any different from Europe or the Middle East. The same is true of Ethiopia and neighbours who welcome similar obsessions about light. And this is a pity. These non articulated views that are full of prejudices – catches on all of us like the wild fire – bias all of us disfiguring the face of reality.

The art of apprehending light, depends on apprehending the old grammar of the eternal fine virtues of the ‘devine subject’, ‘light’ which was the civilised societies’ concept.

Today, indeed in the age of photography (digital) and new media, auspicious cultures continue exhilarating light’s and shadow’s meaning, fond of mentioning the former, as the auratic, an essence in the beams of light, a proof that they are more than a match for, regarding art and knowledge – but unfortunately, constrained with old hateful idioms in their agenda. Admitting this, brings together their elitism (impolite moral and political topics) with a supple euphoria to be hoisted high ( in ‘gorgeous’, ‘exquisite’ and ‘smooth’ manner) charming the whole world. This produces a huge proportion of access – photography and cinema (re)productions in our scientific age – to contain others undercontrol.

Portrait photography is quite an old trade in Africa. We can readily indicate the photos of the Ethiopian noblesse taken by the Boyadjians 3after 1914 who also retain the first vestiges of modernisation in Ethiopia. But the zenith of African photography reached its highest summit by Seidou Keita whose work is both, ‘technically brilliant, and deeply evocative of late colonial Bamako through the portrayals of its indigenes (…)’.4 Neither popular nor professional like Keita’s Bamako studio, Addis’ trendy photo kiosques have rather the same penchant with Accra’s photo studios creating an impressive atmosphere for their customers as they try to appease by “the pulp of their studio contents”, background decor which amply suit many’s dream.5

There remain other options for proficient class cineasts; Sembene’sCeddo 6, Garima’s Sankofa 7 or the latter’s recently released Adwa - theirs is epic narratives tracked from Histories’ lines. Expert accounts from photo documents are there for stomach to digest the past ills and to reset new theme, essential in the unclaimed territory of knowledge. Not adjacently rise the African locale photo kiosque masquerades; but transiently, with African Photography, Cinema and New Media on the Diaspora, they hunt new answers, beyond the reaches and registers of the Popular African Photography. From the otherside, to say only‘african photography’, ‘is mischievous’ or ‘not achieved’, like the illusory perspective of the African Township Photo Salon is incongruous a remark.

M.T. 21 November 2002, Antwerp

1 Deluge (1996), is made by the Ethiopian independent film maker, Salem Mekuria.
2 Mesfin H. Mariam, (*a camera conceals embarrassment) ‘Yebuna Bet Seeloch’ /Bar Paintings/Addis Ababa, Photograph, 1992, p. 48
3 Armenian family by origin escaped with many others compatriates the holocaust or genocide by the Turks, they are known as one of the first modernisers of Ethiopia, and settling there, they have introduced one of twentieth centuries civilisation tools, photography.
4 Littlefield Kasfir Sidney, ‘Contemporary African Art’, Thames and Hudson – London, 1999, pp. 45-47
5 There are “backdrops” to everybody’s desire; therefore one chooses between those: an oasis, a lake with a sunset, a waterfall or even some thing else to the far going clientelle who has the stomach for engines or similar civilisation icons; to pose as pilot, there is a Boeing and a Mig 16, to the one who has the unhindered taste for violence. Sitters or models can get them, if they pose themselves in front of their dream air crafts! They can imagine, but enter once in their life into western metropolitan spots which are painted ‘real’ with effect to illusory mischievousness. Once in their life time, sitters can be spotted under the Avenue des Champs Elysées or Manhatan Sky LinesMeccaor Jerusalem, the Kremlin or the Great Wall. If you think, the African artist doesn’t apprehend perspectival illusions, you are mistaken! Suppose, you are satisfied of African locales and haven’t yet gone to see the Ghize Pyramids; there you have them beyond the sands inside Accra and Addis photo studios (…!!).
6 The film Ceddo was made in 1976 in Senegal, deriving from the Wolof languge, it can be translated as “the common people who resist religious and cutural expropriation”. Black art and culture in the 20th century; Richard J. Powel, Thames and Hudson, London – 1997, p. 217
7 The film Sankofa was made in the U.S. in 1993, it means in Akan language, to go back and retrieve, ibid Powel, p. 219


Private Parts


Wrong doing Juno

I must be like Juno doing wrong who did not keep the word from the age of primeval practices. An ancestral trend. Besides this; exhibiting the multiples from the age of mechanical era is doubling the paradox. What can you do about it? Excusably a complicated habit; but it is worthwhile working; i.e. to say effective for the occasion. Is it so committing a sin compromising with the auratic easel painting? So exasperating at the same time seducing; painting seems surviving.

You know art is about fooling your tribe or other “tribes” and making the unimaginable mockery. Art is all about a beautiful lie. You can do it best with old and tested model goddesses such as Juno; also with very much proved crafts; say chess hockey, medicine or art of painting. You can anoint the statue which stood for Juno’s imagery and burn to it fats; to the symbol mother of fertility. If I mix up the ritual in worshipping the African and European deities it does not matter. As heavenly beings they are permanently every where and identity-less not identifiable; no matter we are learned to paint them the gamma they do not wear. It had been an easy tourney to Zeus to descend to the plateaus of Ethiopia from Parthenon for a banquet. I came from matriarchal society and I would like to boost the goddesses of all gods; Isis. Actually no one argues that all humans descended from Africa. Then, automatically we proved to be human also in the old continent in the ancestral home by cultivating the foundation of culture. Only then was the Diaspora possible to the man-kind.

I hope not to mall practice over the ancestors’ religion if I burn the praline in place of a fat to Juno and dance in trance infront of her just as to the painter become drown in her/his sensational inspirations. “—Big passive field of colors; cutting edges submerging down, down to the bottom; non-worked in the regular painterly manner space; dull bleak somber or the opposite sharp intense set ups. The painter has to fight; that is the sole reason of his existence. So he has to work too; his craft and business is as any body’s; as the hair dresser or the baker. — The painter’s ancient business goes on. Some things never change. —Filled with strokes that comes out from in; —-small contrasting [angular] patterns that complete or accentuate the lighter field; —-white wall, a necessity ground to support the ornament [the colorful (monochrome) painting]—“.

We do not any more hear such words in exhibition halls; perhaps for failure of not understanding the streams of the conventional art or for fear of being bullied by for loving again the divorced. You must love always. You must remain loving. Always. Do not give chance for a broken heart.

The Traditional Avant-garde Stuff

In so many ways the traditional avant-garde case always works together. Genuinely the proportion making of those two elements remain to the genius. It can be Leonardo or Miles Davies. Avant-garde [NEW] ideas have always been existing; from time immemorial; not before but just when the earth had conceived the first life. I think the name and usage of the avant-garde seems to be deciphered by historians at the beginning of the century. Traditional and avant-garde; these two mostly attributed words by whole massa artists; artist like culture-workers (culture-inteligentias), art dilettantes and art aficionados, have obliterated themselves just to be regenerated in the forthcoming scenario. Still. In the eve of the year 2000. Arguing them is an electric experience. It is not possible to learn them. We should remain happy feeling their presence just to caricature them by making our own interpretation. I am out of the art game for I found fun in caricaturing.

Am I offensive describing the “Western Art” in how I understand it? If so not, I would add this. Considerably the Low Lands were the major contributors of Western art in the field of painting; let us say in the last four centuries. I am afraid to put the same remark now. May be; time is preparing to generate new artists [primarily painters] in these lands that were also benefactors to the world art? Just I want to remind you too; that the Western art has left its consequent marks every where; i.e. the respected icon from the Ethiopian Empire; “The Kwerate Reesu” is believed to have come from a school of Hans Memling. If not Memling precisely; I do not have a good knowledge of Medieval art Of the Flanders; but it seems to me the work is done just by Memling when in bad mood or he had put a significant dose of painterly touches on the face of Christ. ( There is a dispute for generations about the origin of its authenticity in London, Lisbon and Ethiopia). More over, Western art had accelerated the rational and human lives of societies; I think every where. This helped forming a situation for emerging artists from Cuba and India; for example. It helped because the transformation of the European culture is very well tempered with Castro’s Cuba; dancing and singing all sorts of salsa and Afro-Cuban rhythm and with Gandhi’s and Nehru’s India; the largest democracy binding the Western thinking and Buddhism.

A hard crunch -Painting

You see the business of painting is not a major but an overall concern of West Europe or what it would become The European Union. I think in this continent for the first time the British and the Germans confidentially have spoken up about their new trend in painting. Starting from the heavy weights; Bacon, Auerbach, Kitaj, Lucien Freud along with the Germans Richter, Kiefer, S. Polke, Basselitz just to mention a few. In French and Spanish terrains we have not seen new and interesting artists in recent time. Italy played its role differently but its most known group did not do her any good, if not it ashamed her. The Transavanguardia was an ambitious and too charismatic group for painters with too big market strategy and success and with too little art. I think it does not deserve its fame. But this is a thing of the past. We now all know Painting is a very hard crunch .You can not bite it. You can not chew it. Perhaps you can melt the praline in your mouth and swallow it down. Try.

28/10/98 Antwerp M.T.




Humans have not entirely appreciated forlong any machine. Man and his ingenius craft the machine (since its earliest discovery), have had ambiguious relationships. This still, continues, in reality, they are at war; the former as a myth creator of the later fights back; seems to be led and misled by its own artifice and craft. The exit is in a terribly hollow passage; man is trapped by and is falling into it; in the deepest precipices; he would not hit the end of it. Even the garish gargoyle rocks not finish him off, he will end up; ‘defecating’. Beneath, if he is lucky enough to reach; he will be devoured up by the hungry crows, vultures and beasts. To cut the nightmare short, he has to scream and loose his state of mind. His own voice echoeing on him hits back the huge cliffs. This was the Surrealist draughtsman’s plot.

How does it feel the nightmarish surreal imagination? Falling down from Alamata sspiral-Shikirkirosh, or from the tip of Limalimo Yagadel Chaf; where trucks carry their way through beginning with the safest cautions; not driving, but descending their vehicles down with a ‘0’ in gear calling as the woman in labour Mariam, Mariam Auichign! - (Jesus, take me out of this hell!); only for one thing, to end their voyage safely. But they will never reach the lower edge of the cliff before they die; a highlander says so. ‘You will get finished off in the air; by the dread of dying’. And this is the ‘Kizsiaet-Nager’ (nightmarish for Amharic)!

Nietzsche was not a pessimist; neither (but ironical) had he a cruel formula of life as he brands us fit for the worst and not for a cherishable life. Indifference and disenchantment would not be soft spoken terms like delight. To him. In ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra; his progenitor, in the ‘übermensch’ falls in the pit; there, beneath the precipices he stays alive to suffer again and again. Man playing the “non-terminal” role of his destiny. On the tight rope too, to stay performing you have to keep walking on the rope.’ 1. Edgar Alan Poe’s surealist fantasies, which were one of my first short stories to read in English; the first was the lives of the I world war soldiers from a Polish, which was not at all a soft Sade. And all remind me now Jeronium Bosch or the works of Brughel the Hell or the Velvet – their sarcasm is one and the same – a one eyed man leading all blind! We know it has really ocurred in the I World War. The gas that left shut off garnished garisons in the ditches of the Low Lands. And yesterday, the orange gas in the Far East…. and also other gasses today that leak else where? Shall we say stop? Let the machine be ruled by men! Or let’s wish the optimist’s maxim ‘Man kind shall survive and it shall win over the machine!’.

What is the abstract beauty in the geometric progress? Why is man competing his own machines, robots – mankind², or mankind³ – doubled, trippled and quadruppled reaching to an infinite measure out of himself? As art is torn between humanities and science; between creative fantasy and learned engagement; between temperamental fun and meditative melancholy; can we also say art has pushed it far as science did? Knowing that it did not push it to anywhere – the cave drawings are still fresh and invigorate dynamism with the sense of completion and exerted force that match to ver few masters. Any craftsmanship which evolves in a studied plan from master to deciple, i.e., the craft of drawing has combined in itself accumulated experience – useless or useful it is another inquiry we have to scrutinise and examine for. The Ethiopian church draughts man who illuminates vestiges to manusripts draw; draw like the Indian Minaturist, Matisse or Picasso; with the closest verve to them he draws a single line in pen and ink; he draws any thing from emblematic design to abstract and frequently shifting to figurative submerging perplexity of (Pre) – Christian, Islam, Judaic conventions.

We can call the Ethiopian draughtsmanship an Afro-Indo-European, for it embraces Romano-Byzantine particles and oriental ornamentation – nothing is foreign and unadaptable for the Ethiopian draughtsman. The Symbols of the Evangelists who hold or suspend time and the world; (according the Dafteras /church clergies/) are formulated by the images and symbols of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. The forms of the evangelists may have derived from the basic elements of ancient philosophy; water, air, fire and Earth. I also see the elements entrenched at the back of the four dimensions of the physical reality; time included. Of course after Einstein’s theory of Relativity time has become the fourth dimension of a substance.To Contemporary physics the later statement is the old talk-show.

I. Limousine – My Limo; is about the symbiosis of technique(s), craft(s) and art(s) and the marriage of these or other elements in celebrating life. In the African costumary family life; it is always possible to take more than one life partner; polygamy is not a point in revealing the ‘Dinosian’ life style which is prefered to the ‘Apolonian’ in Africa. Brothels, and red light corners are new permits in the continent.

Humans must win over the machine; over any kind of collective design, bureaucracy, etc. The free drawing embarks from a substantially human origin; individual expression. Therefore it must win over any thing; peoples’ hearts and minds. A fine drawing is like the law ammendement, changes every hundred year; where every one must abide to it, only the lucky one get away from it. The outlaws. They make their own law – this ocassionally happens, like the flowering of a rare cactus, when once in its life span it flowerth and whithers away to die – once in a hundred year. Leavng behind, a flower, a sterile seed or a fruit. The making of it can happen every hundredth of a year. An extinct event like a tale of an extinct line of a draughtsman.

M.T. Friday 1 September 2000 9:26:45 AM A’pen.

1 P. Digests; 99 M.T.- unpublished works.




To Walther, Artecoppo, Vervier

My portraits and figures are gestural imprints from the indescribable mutiny of life or they are disposed desires of representation of something we all sometimes collectively identify ourselves with, at any moment of depiction; albeit the yearn for enlightened natural environment which is nonsense to reproduce it; I tend to mimic less accurately reality but calmly excited.

This is not a tasteful assignment as to decorate a piece of cake with amandes, it is a bit of a tedious writing towards the self or facing yourself, /…./ and haven’t finished yet scribbling my character self in wards in words, yet…my writing of half a page that I promised to send in about a week would reach you; but I have to send it, any way, in the present state, for we have no enough time. I hope, I will not have any problem to send you just in time using the attachment icons in the Cyber Cafes of Borgerhout. May I add too, two new more items and a beautiful title, so your public from Vervier can strictly embark (remember me!) on my ideas; ‘here it is my :

Indecision to paint clearly’…

To think and paint from the representational world remind one about many things, including how a painter get along with the milieu in a pragmatic mood. Be it, the ‘self‘ with the social conditions, ‘becoming successful’, and rising over the common routines, ‘getting the mark of your time’. I am not looking for powerful symbolism, emblematic summits in art of figurations. Not because they are not feasible. In this regard my work is sufficiently complacent – but I look in simple things as well; a wit, and a light aesthetics that may impart contentment to any one. It is not yet up to someone to make success come. But I don’t want also, to die of hunger or freezing unpaying the bill of some authorities here, like Electrabel.1 The problem is, if you are famous you don’t become also your own master, you will be a manikin to powerful institutions, to tricksters who gamble in markets or human beings – heartless goblin merchants and flowerists who cheat every hour of the day and are busy, busy introducing your stoke.

If you are hungry also you die without painting adequately, without seeing life to its pit. It must be possible to draw a golden balance, and pray for God to hold the scales for you higher; “lala.. lala…”, what an enticing anecdote! Don’t you also know, that fate, some call her ‘fata morgana’, is not of your own making whether she appears in the form of success or failure. I want to say even fate is not the definite finale for fulfilling higher aspirations nor is she a trap to downfalls. You can’t shape, control a natural incident. But regardless all that you have to quench your thirst and enjoy life without cheating and being cheated. Let me say, one can’t have a divinal might to be absolutely honest; proportionately, it is to wo/men, to us humans natural and justifable to be liars; in inescapable moment, in exposure to dangers and to rescue ourselves and others. We have to remember also one can gorgeously best lie is in arts with heads hidden or revealed.

M.T. Monday 13 October 2003

1 A Belgian state entreprise, an electric power authority like ‘Mebratina Hail Balesiltan’ of Addis.


Wagadugu v/s Gutenberg: unflinching ready-made and the zeal of art artifice


The art of print was very likely to have been greeted a great welcome; right from its very appearance; nonetheless we do not know when its first appearance was; if not considered map-prints, portraits and other wisdom from the Medieval ages as testimony to the discovery of print. I speculate, the print was invented in the Stone-ages. Mankind left traces or prints of his hand marks on cave walls, by simulating his world he made the unique monoprints on earth. Art always has not been a primary necessity; yet, figurative images were produced in graffito in cave walls. The first abstract sculptures were the human tools; utensils for softening the harsh life; not his object-art anyway. The print is unimaginable in Africa; but, the idea of multiple making has always been exiting. The dress makers keep variable mentions of pause papers; sort of stencils in their pockets. ‘Harambe’ is a fake print of embroidery of this émigré. Art remains confused of whether taking a normal step or a geometric progression in history’s vertical plan. After all, in the age of a great communication; high-tech did not help mankind to be free; subservient to high-tech man became more and more non-communicative. But music helped; i.e., the kind of song Bretolt Brecht wrote to his wife; Jennie, to sing it out in her flat voice. Nevertheless distasteful to hear for the 1st time; the song turned out to be a hit; for Brecht underpinned its importance. Time was fun with the ‘voice print’ disc; the gramophone; and now with hi-fi; c.d. and laser d. the sensation to the ‘magic print’ is quadrupled. We enjoy Lee Pee Scratch and the singers from Harlem to Manhattan who went scratching the record albums; to find new expression in music. They are not waiting records from an emptybluster. More plates!

Unsatisfied of the old they improvise anew. Tuff diamond scratches out the plate and the ‘voice prints’ sound. They sound beautiful. Fabulous. Do not say my comparative writing is sarcastic; at least, it has a grain of truth studying the links between ‘Self’ and ‘Other’. So, Cartage lost. And did Alexandria (I already forgot its Christian name). The former lost; due to, not promoting writing (‘printed wisdom’). Instead it built war vessels and chariots for the wealthy in its capitols and ports. The latter; as in the legend; it lost; and ruined for it loved too much. Africa lost its influence over Europe as much as its queen lost her prudence; taken by emotions of love she took the cup of death. Beautiful, exalted and sexy Cleopatra gave her breast to the deadliest snake bite. She must have been some kind of freak caprice of the time; an exhibitionist who wanted to die in her open court in an act of love. It is inappropriate and fake-like to shine her regalia with the lustre it shone when the continent sold out its power and influence to the Romans; even if it was for pure love! The sun of glory went down never to rise again in the continent. They use to say so; ‘you start to sing when an event is too big to describe’. Africa is now turned to be a singer and sings only the trend which it knows well. Among other things; it entered into a business of exporting its soul. Indeed, it exported the ‘Soul’, ‘Chachacha’, ‘Maringhe’, ‘la Salsa’, ‘el Mambo’, ‘la Guaracha’, ‘la Rumba’, ‘el Tango’, ‘el Samba’, ‘la Rancherra’, ‘the Rag time’, ‘the Reggae’, ‘the Blue’ and ‘the Jazz’ etc. I think, if these songs were not introduced in print form and the world did not learn to chant them; we would have been acting very differently; you guess how! The songs revived to stimulate the ‘Filin’. The continent still shies away from the ink of Gutenberg which is split in the sands of Wagadugu. And those sands sipped ungratefully the ink of Gutenberg and have not asked for more for fear it would dampen their “Filin”. More ink ?


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