By Tecola W Hagos (10 June 2020)
Dedicated to You, PM Abiy Ahmed, to Cheer you on your Continued Stand for Ethiopia and its Dam, the GERD. Do not Forget the Kidnapped Female Students of Dembi Dollo University. You have a winning hand, right now. Keep up your Courage and Faith.
I Behailu Bezabeh: the artist with sense of humor
I am allowed to have favorites. Here is my favorite artist, Behailu Bezabh. Behailu has excellent gift in using space and content/form effectively. But above everything else, he has that great human quality—a sense of humor. I have never met Behailu, but I have seen many of his paintings.
And I audaciously state that the history of art shows in varying paces a movement from the thematic to the anecdotal, and one may throw in there as an afterthought for effect the early classical ideas on beauty [See above, “Bale Gariw”], the different movements since the time of the impressionists, and the art-for-art sake concepts, then you would have covered most anything in the history of Western Art. We still have to formalize our own history. [As an aside, I acknowledge my childhood friend Essaye Gebre Medhin who is putting up sincere and very helpful effort in that direction. He needs encouragement and some push.] I believe Behailu has succeeded more than any artist I know of in sharing with us the humorous with the beautiful. Of course, if you have not rode in one of those rickety Garis, you will not be able to experience the sublime to the full, but you will be still awed with the artists mastery in using space and compositional structure, as well as his great skill in bringing out such emotive response from his audience. I challenge my readers if they cannot hear the clatter, the chop-chap sound of metal horseshoes on cement or asphalted streets somewhere in Ethiopia in real time wherever you are.
That is what I see and applaud as a great artistic mastery. Nevertheless, I will also point out some structural overwork, for example, the wheels are unnecessarily over worked, a simpler less emphatic rendition could have done magic to this work. the face of the horse would have been more harmonious if Behailu used the same degree of restraint and humor he used on the driver’s face. One can make fairly sophisticated and meaningful statement by saying less. In art history, we find the minimalists in painting, architecture, music. what is interesting is the fact that the reverse happened in literature, where exhaustive detail of the utterly mundane seems to have taken over to this day starting with Honoré de Balzac through Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Forget Romanticism, the heroic, the beautiful.
II. Mezgebu Tessema: the artist of painterliness in search of content
I think of Artist Mezegabu as a phenomenal artist in search of content. Mind you, it is not enough to be a great draftsman, watercolorist, or master painterly artist; content is as important as craftmanship. An artist I believe is the best painterly Artist with extraordinary ability in his use of tonal as well as chromatic/shade wide range of “color/hue” is Mezgebu Tessema Bedionsu. No Ethiopian or foreigner painter I know of comes close, maybe the American little-known contemporary artist Jill Charuk and the 19th Century Russian Ilya Yefimovich Repin. However, I am ever craving for some breakthrough from his brush from the types of work of cattle-based symbolism and also away from mundane and frivolous content wherein in some paintings that he boarders becoming a pornographer. With his great talent what I want to see are paintings with great Ethiopian historical contents like that of Afework Tekle. Mezgebu is very capable of undertaking monumental works, a clear example is his work “ንግስ Nigs” (Figure 11).
In an interview with the Editor of Addis Fortune Magazine, Mezgebu elucidated his thoughts about Art/Painting in Ethiopia and his philosophy on art/painting. It seems that what I have criticized him for, in fact, makes up his conception of content, for he does not make any substantial distinction between content and form. I take it, when he talks about “form” it is the image being offered in the artwork:
“Q: There are certain fundamental elements in any painting, including the form, the content and the colour. Where do you place your utmost focus?
”[MT] A: “I believe that the form itself is the content. This is because no matter what kind of object is there in a painting, the form communicates with the viewer whether it is associated with real life or internal personal feeling. Whatever object is there, if one gives attention to the form, then communication can be facilitated. Of course, in here, communication does not mean talking or dialogue. And if you communicate with the painting regardless of the object, then, that is the content of the painting.
“But that content differs in line with the audience. If a person is a specialist in painting, he can communicate with it in more ways than an ordinary person. This does not mean that ordinarypeople are ignorant about art. As long as a person has some feeling with the painting, it means that they have certain communication with it. But the level will be different as compared to a specialist.” [Getachew T. Alemu, OP-ED Editor, “Mezgebu Tessema: The Painter with the Midas Touch”, ADDIS FORTUNE, April 12,
What Mezgebu said in that discussion reminds me of the book by the humanist artist (some identify him as socialist) Ben Shahn, The Shape of Content (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures), Harvard University Press, 1957, 1992, that I read years back and still read now and then, for truth is never out of fashion [writing thus, I may be betraying my Platonic underpinning]. No matter how or what Mezgebu thinks about “Form” and “Content”, he has unmatchable skill and talent in the use of “white” pigment. I know of no Ethiopian artist who paints the Ethiopian “Shema” as beautifully and as textured as Mezgebu does in countless depictions. Of late, his mastery has reached such heights that is beyond the descriptive and has become the very essence of that phenomenal Ethiopian cotton fabric.
However, Mezgebu seems to have a darker side as well—his tendency toward pornography is obvious in several of his paintings. For example, his latest work is a subliminal depiction of a beautiful woman fully dressed in her gorgeous shema and kemis is sitting on the shaft of what can easily be construed as an enormous shaft of an erect uncircumcised penis. [Figure: 12. Nevertheless, Mezgebu needs to pay attention the way he does anatomy of the human form, for example, the feet of the lady are all wrong,] He seems also to flaunt his great painterly skill in some of his recent works. There are several photo-mix depictions or paintings of women or couples reclining in very sexually suggestive pauses rapped in satin or cotton bedding sheets. In fact, it seems that Mezgebu sees women as sex objects, he hardly ever painted a woman for her character. (Figures 12, 13) I cringe every time I see such paintings, for I see a master artist with superb skills, but not knowing what to paint and searching for meaningful content.
Although there may be very little connection between ethical theories and most real life-behavior of people, it is not hurtful to have some understanding of moral and ethical principles in society, for the good that may well be the result of individual actions based on such beliefs. I extend my observations on “beauty” and the “sublime” to cover moral, political, and social engagements. A good illustration on this point would be the courageous activities of the leaders of several political organizations, both here and back home in Ethiopia, no matter how clumsy and amateurish and clannish they might be. Much can be said about Mezgebu’s painting style and the range of his painterly skill; nevertheless, there are few items he needs to pay attention too: anatomy of the human form , especially hands and feet. In terms of composition, he needs to revisit the classic treatment of flat surfaces, paying attention to the universal “rules of three” and perspective.
III. Afework Tekle: the artist with great vision in search of skill
I know Afework Tekle quite well meeting with him for the first time in my senior year at Woizero Seheen Comprehensive High School (1960-64). He had invited me to visit with him at his studio at the request of my banker Uncle Tesfaye Hailu, a very amicable and very sophisticated supportive Uncle. Afework knew my Uncle quite well because of his banking at the Commercial Bank. I was on my School Break for two months in Addis staying with my Uncle and Family. We drove to Afework’s Studio-Residence on a Saturday late morning in Hamle in 1963, with the usual overcast. Afework, ever the cultured man, received as very amicably, inviting us first to his Residence/Livingroom for coffee/tea, where he had just mounted his “Meskel Flower” painting in a beautiful new frame of his own design.
I had brought with me my sketch pad and few watercolor paintings.[A piece of nonsense I am sharing with you is the fact that at that time, I thought of my paintings and sketches as the best, greater than any Ethiopian artist’s work, including Afework Tekle’s work, my host at that time.] I was not in awe of him—the arrogance of youth is unbelievable—but just curious. He asked me some questions on how I get material for my work that he will help me if I need any such help. I thanked him and never asked help from him, I had plenty more material than I needed, and first quality linen canvases, great brand-name pigment tubes. I had then some opinions on the “Meskel Flower” that I was looking at over the mantel, with a glowing electric fire in the Fireplace. Very cozy place. I kept my opinion to myself, as I am usually reserved person. I think the “Meskel Flower” is the worst painting Afework ever painted that I did not like to this day. I know Afework loved that painting, he never finished touching and retouching it throughout his life. Her anatomy is all wrong, her hands and foot are awful and look like grafted from peasant farmers’ overdeveloped and abused hands and feet—just very mediocre work, a cocoon of glitter and fanfares.
III. wish Afework Tekle had the courage to learn from this phenomenal artist Mezgebu Tessema. Afework Tekle, despite his great visions and rich content in his paintings, was a mediocre artist when it comes to painting Ethiopian cotton or silk fabrics. His tremendous failure in painting “Shema”, for example, in his famous 1963 painting “Mother Ethiopia.” (Figure 15) is obvious. The depiction of the cotton fabrics that occupies more than seventy
percent of the painting’s positive space is a joke—a total waste both in the pigmentation and texture/folds depiction of the “Gabi/Dereb-Kuta and the “Kemis”. He deliberately sacrificed tradition for aesthetic presentation by painting the tilet/tilfe up on her head around the face of the Mother figure that is worn thus only when a person is in mourning. One can easily see how such renowned artist failed in painting the “shema’, for his cast shadows of the “shema” are confused mixing up warm umber with cool Prussian blue under the same light source—not even a first-year art student will confuse. I confronted such a problem some fifty years ago in my painting “The Ethiopian” (Figure 7) where I failed in my treatment of the folds of the trousers of the male figure in that image. Painting a “shema” is a very tricky and exhausting process that only the most skilled and the most attentive can carry out well.
In fact, the painting “Mother Ethiopia” has several other serious problems both in content and form. Nevertheless, one singular fact that I want to emphasize and declare with awe about Afework Tekle is his incredible work-ethics. I know of no other Ethiopian artist who devoted as much time as Afework did to his craft/artistic endeavors withstanding great temptations that great wealth and friends in high places provide. He had produced and created countless paintings, sketches, stain glasses, prints et cetera to the very day he died of illness. Because of his life we are made richer, more aware of our fabulous history, and cemented our humanist philosophy of life in our daily lives.
I believe that Ethiopian painters are exceptionally talented often gifted artists. There is no doubt in my mind that they stand toe to toe, face to face with any in the World. I think about many Ethiopian artists whose works I have seen, and have concluded what else can they be being brought up in such sophisticated culture of color and pageantry—of numerous meaningful public Holidays, exotic population with truly beautiful women/girls all over the place, landscape and incredible cloud formations, et cetera. Ethiopia is an intoxicating and “addictive” country. How true, Lemma Megersa, and I sincerely thank you for your poignant monumental poetic emotive statement “ሱስ ነው፣ ኢትዮዽያዊነት።”. [2 Nov 2017 Amhara and Oromo conference in Bahir Dar. Lemma, You gave us a new lexicon, a way of expressing our love and patriotism. I ignore all your other uncouth statements.] If only such other hyphenated Ethiopians know the greatness of the core cultures of Ethiopia that are still intact in Amara-sa’int, Ambasel, Ankober, Asaieta, Axum, Awasa, Bashasha [the birth place of PM Abiy Ahmed], Borena, Debre-Tabor, Gondar, Irob, Jimma, Lasta-Wag, Menz, Wokiro/Negasi, et cetera, they will seek far less passage to the doors of an alien cultural traps—the Americas and Europe. We can still start to rebuild wherever we failed or faltered our version of the authentic whole human experiment from the source of our great civilization and include “modernity” with all its hyphenated players and with all its alien subculture, on our terms.
This distinction of “Form” and “Content” reminds me of a low-blow question I used to pause to my students in Philosophy (critical thinking, rhetoric, logic) classes, “Can you go around a squirrel that is holding on a tree trunk keeping the trunk between you and itself as you try to go around it?” The class would divide into two main groups who either claim that is possible and the other adamant that it is so impossible, with a tiny third group that used to interest me the most, for out of forty or so students, refused to participate claiming that the question has no real-life value and is nonsensical. Take all that as a metaphor for our individual reality.
The leaders of opposition political organizations and their supporters, and individuals on their own et cetera have demonstrated their courage in facing brutal and savage individuals who have acquired state power in Ethiopia in the past. The current Ethiopian Government leaders and leaders of political organizations outside of the Government of Ethiopia must be seen as “sublime” moral and political contenders in competition. In other words, they are beyond our judgement in morality and ethics. Here is where I see “form” overcoming content rendering it as empty space, a cipher, to be filled in as we blunder through our experimentation with our lives and the lives of our fellow Ethiopians. In “politics” one finds “art” both at its best and worst. It is true as the saying goes “politics is a dirty game,” full of deceptions, brutality, pain and suffering, so is ”Life” but art spices it up and renders it far easier to swallow or live with—another deception.
Tecola W Hagos
10 June 2020
Copyright © Phineaus StClaire, 2020 [text only]