Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Journey from Ethiopia to Melbourne

The Journey from Ethiopia to Melbourne

Exhibition by Ethiopian Artists: Befekir, Sutueal & Tamirat
Fortyfive downstairs, Melbourne
10 June – 21 June 2008

I walked down the stairs of number 45 on Flinders Lane and the narrow staircase lead me into a world worth exploring. I took a glance around the gallery while at the entrance and the room was field with African energy and colour that confirmed I was in the right place. Sutueal Bekele’s presentation particularly stood out for me and luckily he was there and available to answer any questions.

Before he called Melbourne home, Sutueal made a name for himself in many parts of Africa. He has participated in a number of exhibitions following his Fine Art studies in Addis Ababa.

Sutueal has lived most of his youth days in refugee camps and a fabric that held his life together at the time was based on dependence upon a community. According to my personal knowledge and experience, in African culture, being a “male” means one owns up to a great deal of responsibilities within a society. With this role comes a duty of being a man and that means one becomes the shield for that community, the strong one, the one who is in control of many life challenges, with emotions being at top of the list. I may not know the physical hardships that take place within a refugee camp but from our safe and comfortable “couches” at home we are constantly fed with distressing images of what people go through in order to end up living in such places. I believe that for people like Sutueal and perhaps a lot more others, growing up in such conditions may have varied impact on the persona but the common denominator is emotional scar which they will eternally wear.

Upon my first glance at his work, Sutueal’s representation of women in his paintings was so remarkable. Serene as they appear from afar, the closer you get the more emotional they [women] become. When I asked him about his women; before he could even utter the words, the melody of his voice just gave it all away and I new right then that these extraordinary women represent a deep sentiment in him. The three women in Emotional Presentation depict the different levels of emotions that women who surrounded him would have embodied in their daily existence. This reminded me of a South African actor/director who once mentioned in an interview that African people are not loud in their expression; a simple arched head could exude an emotion greater that a bucket full of exclamations. One doesn’t need to know the subject matter to realize that

[1]these women have a load on their shoulders.
Satueal’s technique creates a barrier between the viewer and the women. When I gave him my interpretation of the composition, he confirmed that the vertical lines represent the separation between his and their common ground which is emotional pain. This is because as one of the men within the communities (camps), the only way to show his emotions was by looking at these women and allowing them to take in his pain and share it with him through their unrestricted capability.
His palette is filled with warm and earthy hues which reminds the viewer of rich African ethnicity.
The canvases portray the masses of colourful fabrics that make up their shema (traditional Ethiopian garment) and as sorrowful as their expressions are, the overall voice of the composition communicates to the viewer in a warm tone. The subject matter is well suited and illustrated with care. He introduces white within this richness of ochres, reds and yellows which suggests purity and honesty in the unfolding story.
The expression on each woman’s face comes from the bottom of her chest and shoots straight to the viewer’s inner being. The canvas invites one for a closer inspection, encapsulates a big personal narrative and delivers the content in an easy to read manner which leaves you with something to ponder.

Amidst this intense emotional voyage, Sutueal brings forth a method which he mastered early in his art practice – Ethiopian Folk painting. This particular method is quite rigid and doctrine in approach meaning the artist is usually forced to conform to these set principles. Meskel Celebration depicts these fundamentals and also demonstrates the inflexibility that gives the artist very little room for personal style. The long rectangular canvas [224x40cm] illustrates a series of holy men wearing their pure white Shema and saints in their brilliantly coloured cloaks surrounded by the tools of their trade. Typical attributes that constitute this meticulous technique are well embraced by the artist. The good people (priests and saints) are illustrated with oversized opened eyes and light skinned. On the other hand evil characters or nonbelievers would be shown in profile with one eye opened. The artist gives himself a leg room and in doing so, he bends the rules by capturing a holy man with closed eyes. When he spoke about this work, he jokingly mentioned that there is nothing wrong with closed eyes; he is after all human and does that sometimes. He defies the rules even further by creating depth on this composition as well as painting parts of the background/wall. Once again, the traditional painters of this technique were not concerned with unnecessary background like landscapes or buildings, their main focus would be on the theme of the illustration.

I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition and look forward to Sutueal Bekele’s next offering. To find out more about the artist visit him on http://www.sutueal-art.com/

[1] Image details: Sutueal Bekele, Emotional Presentation, Oil on canvas.
2 Image details: Sutueal Bekele, Meskel Celebration (The Meskel festival celebrates the finding of the cross), Oil on canvas.