Inspired by the color that the sun makes and places like the Semien Mountains artist Therese Humeau has called Ethiopia home for the past year. The well-traveled painter studied in Paris and spent time in Israel before coming here and her art has been exhibited globally. She plans to show some of her works born during her time here and others in an exhibition at the Alliance Ethio-Française. A mother of two, she graduated from the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Art de Paris, studied at Ecole du Louvre and taught Art History as well. Capital sat down and spoke with her about her philosophy, life and creative work.
Capital: Tell us about your work, how did you start painting?
Therese Humeau: My attachment to painting started during my early childhood enjoying what my grandparents collected in our house. Back in France one of my grandparents was a painter and the other had a good painter friend. There were many collections that impressed me, mostly flower and abstract paintings. At first I was just painting as a hobby and then, when I reached the age of 25 and was living in Paris I would paint my children as they went about their day. When I joined art school things became different. I would copy a model sitting in front of the class and paint the most approximate version of what they looked like. As my painting developed I would create what I felt inside and express my ideas. Art school was supposed to take five years but it took me only three to finish. So education helped me to get the most out of my talent. This was the moment I became a professional artist.
Capital: How would you define your art work?
Therese: For me sticking to realism is important which means people, landscapes and stills. When I paint flowers I know that they are silent creatures but their particle of beauty speaks loudly. I also draw movements. I remember painting only black and white for a year. I didn’t touch colors that year just so that I would follow my heart. My paintings are a description of my sentiment. What I painted in black and white turned to be terrible and confusing for me so I transformed it into order and mosaics. The later pieces impressed people and I ended up showing them in exhibitions throughout the world, in places like Mexico, Budapest and Belgium. My paintings can be defined as very close and attached to my internal feelings and expressions. But I also believe that without knowing the past we can’t represent the present. It’s always good to be linked to the history of art. It always tells us how humanity expressed itself back then through the years and through civilizations. My stay at the Ecole du Louvre also stressed the history of art. Being aware of various cultures also will widen your view, as it did mine, India, Japan and Africa have their own colors.
Capital: What inspires your paintings?
Therese: Life inspires me to do my painting. Life is a fight and Israel is a good example. Yes, it is the country of peace and spirituality but with a continuous fight. So my paintings are always inspired by these life colors. And here in Ethiopia, the color has always inspired me. The attachment I have with the reality is the origin of my art and here in Ethiopia, it took a few months for me to get that connection which I am intimate with now. I arrived in Ethiopia last November and it was very difficult for me to rebuild all the relationships and as you know, we in Israel we are very connected socially. This nation is very colorful; even white traditional clothes are decorated with hot and living colors. The flowers, the sky, the light, and the spirituality have always impressed me. The spirituality here is similar to Israel and that’s also my inspiration. As you can feel and notice I make lots of colorful squares which sometimes turn into crosses.
Capital: But you do a lot of abstracts and abstract is not reality.
Therese: Abstract is the internal reality of the painter, how sensitive they can be and their thoughts that are expressed. If you brush to paint on your desk, it is an art. One of my teachers back in the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Art de Paris art school was famous for having paintings that were something but did not represent anything. I also experienced this internal journey when I decided not to touch a color for a year.
Capital: Tell us about your teacher who trusted you with your original paintings and told you to carry out your own exhibition?
Therese: That teacher was a man who was attached to realism, he was an old painter. He portrayed reality in a very simplified manner. If he wanted to display colors he cut them to pieces. So this is my teacher, who inspired me. I had an exhibition in Paris in a big church which has a cross on the side and I made that art as the cross affected me. After I came to Ethiopia I went back to cross paintings. I really want to create them. When I moved to Israel I couldn’t paint for a long time. It was too difficult for me which led to doing ceramics. I went to a studio of women working with ceramics who let me do what I wanted to do. It’s not ceramics which you do every day rather it’s art. But when I arrived in Ethiopia and decided to bring my stuff I thought what shall I do? The little colorful crosses sparkle. In Ethiopia, the woman is in white but colorful. The fruits, the flowers, the trees, everything is colorful because the sun makes the color powerful and strong. What surprised me is that people are not surprised by the Ethiopian things I do here. I make one Ethiopian piece every day.
Capital: Do you travel throughout the country or have you only observed life in Addis?
Therese: As I told you I am always attached to reality and the landscape from the Semien Mountains are among the examples. The light was amazing there. When I travel I am very impressed. Ethiopia is very beautiful which inspires me. But sometimes I can’t draw it as it becomes too beautiful. I really want to see Ethiopia but, sometimes I like to keep my ambitions because it is always great to have that ambition for me to be motivated by my paintings. Now I plan to go to Lalibela with my friends. Someone already told me that I am making the concept of Lalibela in my pieces which makes me eager to see it. Art is very far from intellect because it mainly flows in our unconsciousness.
Capital: Do you have any plans to display your work here in Ethiopia in the coming months?
Therese: Yes, I will have an exhibition at the Alliance Ethio- Française in spring. We aim to be the biggest as the place is huge. But that can be extended to other exhibitions following that. I hope to have an exhibition with Ethiopian painters.
Capital: What are your biggest challenges when you paint?
Therese: For me, painting is love and pleasure. Life and pleasure are my subjects. I have to confess that I am not as disciplined as some artists. I don’t wake up in the morning and sit down and draw. But if I am inspired I can’t sleep. And sometimes when I see my pieces I can’t believe I did them. I believe there is some internal power which guides you in any art. But that doesn’t mean that it’s this easy and you just let it go. It is not easy as life is difficult. When I came a year ago, it was difficult. But now I feel very much attached to Ethiopia. The main reason for my attachment is the spirituality of the Ethiopian people which is the same as the Israeli people. So it is not as easy as we think to be attached to ambition.
Capital: What is the best moment in your art? Is it when you create or when you finish or when people see and respond or when you sell?
Therese: Creation is the most important part for me. Not only for painting but in everything; It could be cooking. And when you create it’s not that you just create all of the sudden; it takes a lot of hard work. And for us women, over the years, it has not been easy to be successful. But now we can give many other things to the world besides babies. We have strong emotions that include our spirituality. So the fact that I am able to create makes me happy and when I see it later, I sometimes doubt if I was the one who did that. When somebody purchases some art from me it is recognition.
Capital: Is there anywhere special in the world you would like to display your work?
Therese: I haven’t thought of this until you asked me but the Hope Orphanage in Ambo popped up in my mind. I visited them nine months ago and I loved them. We created with the children and then we made an exhibition. It was exciting to be with them.
Capital: What about your life ambitions?
Therese: I like to make the people closest to me happy. I always love to make people see the beauty. When I was back in France I remember we had a discussion in our workplace about what the most important things in our lives were. Showing beauty was my answer. The beauty of the people against the societal standards based on age and other standards is what I show in my paintings. The beauty of each person is beyond society’s standards. Each person is beyond the age of the conventions.
Capital: Do you feel blessed to have this talent?
Therese: Yes. When I was in art school 25 years ago I asked myself if I should do what was popular at the moment, which was black and white. There was no kindness and it was a darker moment based on the end of the 10th century. I decided to do something other than the classical things. I did an exhibition in Paris in this big church and I put the painting on the floor and one person with mental illness walked on it. It was so surprising but it inspired me to live with the art. The official art in the 19th century was to participate annually in big exhibitions.
Capital: What is official art?
Therese: It is art-recognized by the powerful people, the rich people who buy the art. But for me, art is official art when it touches your heart or when you feel it. In the 20th century, especially in Paris, it wasn’t about being touched rather it was about knowing. The work of the art was exaggerated. It was all an endorsement creating what is official art. So the impressionists came opposing them and they said we want to do what we like. The name impressionist came after one journalist mocked them for making such an expression. The impressionists broke the rules and started to show their art in different places. It is very difficult to make money. This is the difficulty between what is subjective and objective or official and unofficial.
Capital: How do you determine the price of art?
Therese: When I was in art school whenever someone liked my art pieces I would give them as a gift and one of my teachers asked me this question which changed my view toward pricing. How do you buy your shoes? So you have to at least earn as much as the price of your shoes. When you begin to sell some paintings the people will not buy them if they are too expensive or too cheap. The issues of size will be raised also. So it is complicated.
Capital: Do you believe art is a luxury or a means for society to express itself?
Therese: The art must be a way forward for society. Also, art represents what society is going through. It is the same in all kinds of art including dance and music. But what is society? It is different characters. So the art may be in advance of the consensus of society. The artists might not even understand what they are doing. There are lots of painters who are in advance of the society. And some would like to show just the beauty of society. That’s why I like ceramics it is so simple as you can touch it. You know art coming from the Greek word means technique. When you are an artist you are the technician.
Capital: Have you ever lost the courage you have now and told yourself that you don’t belong in this profession?
Therese: It is not possible for me not to paint but there might be times that I don’t show people. I used to paint in my bedroom and also in a very big studio. If I feel dark inside or weak I can’t paint. So sometimes I may not paint but I don’t give up painting because I need to feel secure.
Capital: If you had to pick one piece of your all-time favorites which one would you choose?
Therese: A painting of my children I did when they were sleeping.
Capital: What about global art?
Therese: I love Japanese art even their garden art. I also like the American Cy Twombly. I also love protocol. I love land art during the 7th century. It is very natural.