“…there is no freedom in this world we live in, rather freedom of choice….” Ethiopian Artist Mezgebu Tesema.
International award winning rap artist Cardi-B, sings “Press press press… Cardi don’t need no press…”. She is right! On the other hand, African American Artist Danny Simmons, shares on his widely followed FB page, “…the art world is funny…in one art world you’re a superstar and in another nobody knows you…”. Simmons is hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons’ big brother and founder of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation and Rush Arts Gallery who was commenting on the 100K USD grant to be made available for important yet under-recognized artists in New York. These sentiments made me think about African artists, who may not get a lot of media, yet remain significant in the context of the narrative of Africa’s contribution to the international art scene. One such artist is Ethiopian born Mezgebu Tesema, a quiet unassuming painter; famous at home for his oversized hyper-realistic paintings, depicting temptingly touchable rural and urban spaces, presented in the most pristine and poignant manner.
Mezgebu’s work is on show in New York City at Columbia University’s Wallach Gallery entitled, After the End: Timing Socialism in Contemporary African Art. According to Hyperallergic.com’s Rachell Morillo, the exhibit reveals “…personal relationships to, and experiences of, socialism in countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. Focused on the liminal space between the promise that came with independence from colonial rule and the reality of the end of the Cold War, each artwork attempts to make meaning from the dramatic political shifts… interrogating the historicism, nostalgia, and specificity of that moment. The works …do not relate to each other chronologically or even by country of origin. Instead, visitors are left to draw our own connections … .”
Morillo’s analysis of Mezgebu, the highly trained Addis Abeba University Alle School of Fine Art and St. Petersburg’s Ilya Efimovitch Repin Leningrad Institute for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture graduate, with high honors in both cases, is on point. “Demonstrating a high level of proficiency, Mezgebu Tesema…demonstrates his interest in expanding traditional forms to reveal new meanings. In the trompe l’oeil painting “Standing on the Frame” (2015), a young woman leans against the edge of a wooden frame — a frame that juts out, levitating on its own plane which seamlessly intersects but is not a part of the large Addis Abeba landscape which acts as her backdrop. The figure’s precarious position speaks to the uncertainty produced around people’s identities in the aftermath of social upheaval.” Mezgebu’s philosophy, “…is to show what is not…” as he aspires to “understand the actual space we experience through time.” He further states on his website, “…there is no freedom in this world we live in, rather freedom of choice….the ideology created whenever we work hard to liberate ourselves from every kind of limitations, barriers and borderlines…”. Mozambique’s phoneme, Angela Ferreira and Angolan photographer, performer and multimedia artist, Kiluanji Kia Henda are also featured in the exhibition.
While galleries and museums continue to be the top choice for shows by the growing number of outstanding African artists, many up and coming African artists see restaurants as a way to get their foot in the door. In the case of Ethiopia, Makush, owned by Tesfaye Hiwet, arguably started if not perfected the trend over 15 years ago with names such as Dawit Abebe, Zerihun Seyoum and Tamrat Gezahegn. While Makush sells scores of pieces per year, Art Newspaper’s Anna Brady reveals another restaurant promoting local artists, exponentially. “The world’s largest collection of South African contemporary art hides in plain sight. Over 22,000 works are hung on the walls of Nando’s, the come-one, come-all chain of chicken restaurants … with almost 1,300 outlets worldwide the…largest public viewing space for emerging South African art—if diners look up from that flame-grilled chicken.” Who knew?! Majority shareholder of Nando and owner of a “discreet high value cotemporary art collection’, Richard (Dick) Enthoven, is the brain behind the concept, happy to oblige South Africa’s artists.
Finally, obliging offenders through art is a novel idea offered in New York City justice system in conjunction with Brooklyn Museum. The press release states, “Project Reset aims to create a proportionate response to low-level crime… holding young people accountable for their actions and connecting them with needed social services while avoiding the use of incarceration and the potential harms associated with standard case processing to complete an art-based program at the Brooklyn Museum that uses art to encourage participants to reflect on their experiences with the justice system and discuss perspectives on accountability.” The participants enjoy free entrance to the museum after completing the program, a nice bonus. Art is crosscutting and I am always excited to share new uses of art across all spheres to help us keep our minds and eyes open for all art has to offer especially for Africans.
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.