Published  20/11/2023

Elias Sime: Eregata እርጋታ

Elias Sime: Eregata እርጋታ

In the Ethiopian artist’s first major European museum exhibition, labour-intensive works made from discarded electronic components sit alongside clay vessels and mud-and-straw sculptures, prompting us to reconsider the role of technology in our lives

Arnolfini visit to Zoma Museum, Addis Ababa, July 2023. Image by Alice Hendy Photography for Arnolfini. All rights reserved.

Arnolfini, Bristol
21 October 2023 – 18 February 2024


From humble plastic buttons and metal keys to finely engineered wristwatches and complex computer hardware, every object has a story to tell. It is the undocumented movement and ownership of such items over time that fascinates Elias Sime, who incorporates them into his mesmerising, large-scale collages and sculptural reliefs. Eregata እርጋታ, at Bristol’s Arnolfini, is the Ethiopian artist’s first major European museum exhibition and showcases his response to our troubled relationship with the relentless march of technology. In a world in which achievement and productivity are prized above rest, and planned obsolescence and perpetual upgrades contribute to growing piles of electronic waste, Sime’s works made from old consumer tech invite us to slow down, take stock and consider the world afresh.

Elias Sime Eregata እርጋታ. Gallery 1 at Arnolfini, Bristol, October 2023. Lisa Whiting Photography for Arnolfini. All rights reserved.

The show opens with a selection of multipanel works from Sime’s Tightrope series, begun in 2009. Appearing like aerial views of landscapes and cities glimpsed from an aeroplane window, their surfaces teem with colourful, swirling patterns. In Tightrope: (20) While Observing ... (2018), braided electrical wires nailed to wooden boards ripple and undulate, evoking a vast natural topography, while in works such as Tightrope: Noiseless 18 (2019), processors, resistors and computer keyboards coalesce into dense urban sprawls. Elsewhere, such readings are negated as Sime moves into pure abstraction, revelling in shape, colour and form. As suggested by their collective title, these pieces, whether abstract or semi-figurative, bring to mind the complex tensions between production and consumption in our increasingly technological and globalised world.

Elias Sime Eregata እርጋታ. Gallery 1 at Arnolfini, Bristol, October 2023. Lisa Whiting Photography for Arnolfini. All rights reserved.

“I prefer things that have been touched or been in contact with people,” Sime has said of his materials, despite not knowing the provenance of the objects he selects. Standing in front of his elaborate, labour-intensive compositions, we ponder the lives of his stripped-down motherboards and accumulations of wires. Without knowing their individual stories, we consider the origins of these materials, the different hands they have passed through, and the places they have been. Sime’s work encourages this kind of speculative thinking, provoking thoughts not only about past possibilities but future ones too.

Elias Sime Eregata እርጋታ. Gallery 2 at Arnolfini, Bristol, October 2023. Lisa Whiting Photography for Arnolfini. All rights reserved.

It is not just the physical production of his works that requires protracted amounts of time; it can take the artist years to accumulate his materials, which are sourced from all over his home city of Addis Ababa, especially the enormous open-air market of Merkato. Indeed, Sime is a collector at heart and has enjoyed scouring the city’s markets for all kinds of objects since childhood. In the upstairs galleries is a focused selection of earlier works, including several made almost exclusively from old buttons. Seemingly abstract but evoking geospatial imagery, compositions such as Yemegnot Alem (2001) reveal the artist to be a master colourist. He is also skilled in the use of needle and thread, using coloured yarns in painterly ways to create dynamic exploding forms in Aremoch (2003-04), and to depict hardworking mules laden with enormous loads in Chenet (2007).

Elias Sime. Veiled Whispers, 2021. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery. Photo: Thomas Barratt

In contrast to the technologically advanced materials of Sime’s monumental Venice Biennale commission, Veiled Whispers (2022) – the arresting physical presence of which can only truly be appreciated in person – is his work with ceramics.

Elias Time. Bareness, 2014. An installation of ceramic pieces. Courtesy of the Artist and James Cohan Gallery.

Bareness (2014) is a floor-based installation of clay vessels that stretches along the edge of the gallery. Inspired by traditional Ethiopian ceramics, these small, delicate pots appear worryingly vulnerable, a deliberate reminder of our own fragility and, as Sime has said, “about how we will all end up being fragments of the Earth, regardless of our status in life”. Intermingled with these are the small mud-and-straw sculptures of Monkeys, Frogs and Televisions (2005), a collection of playful creations made with the most rudimentary of materials.

Elias Sime Eregata እርጋታ. Gallery 2 at Arnolfini, Bristol, October 2023. Lisa Whiting Photography for Arnolfini. All rights reserved.

Mud remains integral to Ethiopian vernacular architecture. Sime grew up in a mud house, as did his chief collaborator Meskerem Assegued, a curator and anthropologist with whom he co-founded Zoma Museum in Addis Ababa. Built with traditional construction techniques that showcase the remarkable versatility of this elemental substance, Zoma is an ambitious art centre that incorporates a gallery, school, gardens and food production. The project, which is showcased at Arnolfini across posters and a film, is a convivial space designed for community. It is a place to share stories and dreams; a radical, socially engaged extension of Sime’s studio practice that is described by the architectural designer Nana Biamah-Ofosu as “a love letter” to Addis Ababa; “an unconditional act of devotion”.

Arnolfini visit to Zoma Museum, Addis Ababa, July 2023. Image by Alice Hendy Photography for Arnolfini. All rights reserved.

If the notion of communication in Sime’s works is frequently implied, his Tightrope: Echo!? compositions from 2021 make the theme explicit. These smaller, multipanel works towards the end of the exhibition are filled with the artist’s signature circuit boards and braided wires, but they feature the addition of megaphones stuck to their surfaces. Protests and political demonstrations immediately spring to mind – situations in which amplified voices drown out the words of others and where narratives are often driven by those controlling the technology. Yet these pieces feel clunky and obvious. By narrowing down potential readings, they lack the rich subtleties of the show’s strongest works. 

Elias Sime. Tightrope Echo!, 2021. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery. Photo Christopher Burke Studios.

The exhibition’s title, Eregata እርጋታ, is a word from Amharic, the Ethiopian Semitic language spoken by Sime. The closest English translation is “serene”, a state of being that the artist ostensibly desires for himself and others. The presence of beanbags in the galleries is an invitation to viewers to stop and take time with the works and in so doing embrace the stilled moment. “We struggle to stop and sleep because our brains are constantly stimulated by technology – we are constantly moving faster not slower,” Sime has said. And yet it is the very stuff of distraction and over-stimulation that he confronts us with, albeit gutted and reconfigured.

The desire to halt or at least slow down the pace of modern living is reflected by the excess of nails that pepper Sime’s surfaces. Both functional and decorative, they pin down and hold tight; like full stops they signal a final end to the components that they pierce. Yet Sime is no luddite, nor is he against innovation. Rather, his practice stimulates a reconsideration of the role that technology plays in our lives, the hold that it has over us and its effect on the human spirit. Eregata እርጋታ suggests that another way of being is possible.

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