“Water Life” is a series of photographs, presenting the plight of water faced by the women of Afar, by Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh. Her vividly intense photos are now part of author and curator, Ekow Oshun’s African Art and Photography book, launched in London this week during “In the Black Fantastic,” exhibit. Oshun has provided another platform for Artist/activist Aida’s unapologetic advocacy through art. “Our continent has many layers…however we have been at the mercy of the international media that does not show the complexities of our challenges. My approach…tell a story from my perspective…not based on cliches…by foreign photographers,” says Muluneh in the Guardian. The exhibition which echoes these sentiments, interrogates racism and all its appendages with keen attention to African identity and culture from 11 artists living and working in the African Diaspora. Curator Ekow states, “We see artists work across a range of art forms – painting, photography, collage, sculpture, film – all of whom are conjuring new possibility, new ways of exploring space, new sets of dreaming that assert or insist upon blackness as a zone of discovery, as a territory that remains and continues to be open to further definition. These are works that reach back in time towards myth, towards history, and towards African cultural survival.”
At a time when conversations on identity conjures a spectrum of feelings from pride to prejudice, new views can add to the much needed narratives on African’s self-view. Eshun shares, “What these artists are doing is offering other ways of looking and other ways of seeing that grapple with the racialised every day and reach beyond some of the ways that Black people have been confined and constrained by a Western imaginary that offers them, historically, as figures who come out of a cultural tradition that is somehow less sophisticated, less contemporary, less modern, and less present than the Western world.” The title “In the Black Fantastic” is indication of self-determination and ‘…use fantastical elements to investigate alternative realities and confront ideas about race through folklore, myth, science fiction, spiritual traditions, pageantry and the legacies of Afrofuturism.’ So with the western world trying to determine Ethiopia’s destiny based on outdated colonial contracts and through manipulation on all levels, including use of mainstream media, photographers and curators like Aida and Ekow help to fill gaps in the African social fabric and psyche amidst foreign forces perception on Africa.
South of London, across the European continent in Malta, Ethiopian artist Dereje Shiferaw’s provocative collection of mixed media paintings entitled, “Obliterated Childhood” is on display at Christine X Gallery until Friday 8th July. As a proud African husband, father and humanitarian, the conflict is taking its toll and he worries about the children in Ethiopia and all war-torn countries, hence his prognosis, ‘obliterated childhoods’. “Oblivious to what is happening in the world around us, most of us wouldn’t be able to comprehend what it is like to be living in a war-torn country. Perhaps when it gets closer to home it gets to sink in but the world has been experiencing wars ever so often,” says Dereje. He confronts the notion that society has a duty to protect children, yet the deafening sounds, sights and smell of war encircle the youngest of us all. Dereje documents the myriad emotions in real time.
The father of two appropriated pages from his son’s school notebook to comment on the conditions, locally and globally. In fact, he illustrates the intersection, the injustice and even the opportunity for hope. In one painting, the Eiffel tower in Paris serves as a backdrop for a Black man ripping a visa application in half, while in another a little girl sits comfortably or hopelessly, amidst an array of items from guns and ammunition to flowers and flags. ‘Most artists remain in their safe space refining and defining their work but Dereje does quite the opposite of what these formally taught artists do. The signature of this avante-garde artist lies in how he paints his figures: he accentuates the melanated figures with illustrious lips, stylized facial features and huge contorted hands. “The Intriguing dialogue between the subject’s message and the viewer is compelling…physically and emotionally invested in the subject’s story, my aim is to capture the sprit, essence and heritage of my subject and use this as an opportunity for the world to peer into the lives and struggles of people whose stories are yet to be told…” says Dereje.
Back home in Africa, Addis Abeba Professional Photographers Association along with USAID have mounted “Photography for Peace” in the Addis Ababa Museum at Meskel Square. Closing on Tuesday July 3rd, leading Ethiopian photographers: Antonia Fiorente, Abate Damte, Michael Tsegay, Mekbib Tadesse, Aron Simineh, Samuel Habtab, Hilina Tafesse and Eyoeal Kefalew have added their voices to the country’s clarion call for peace. To quote Bob Marley, “There’s a natural mystic flowing through the air… .” Artists of Ethiopia, throughout Africa, and in the Diaspora are converging organically through shared experiences and concerns to deliver a message to the western world. The Memo: Africans are ready, willing and able to determine their destiny and tell their own stories, while expressing and shaping their visions for the future on their terms. Bekka!
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.