Published  27/01/2016

Robel Temesgen: ‘Being an Ethiopian in Norway was a really interesting inversion’

Robel Temesgen: ‘Being an Ethiopian in Norway was a really interesting inversion’

In his first London show, the artist explores the Ethiopian traditions of honouring the spirit of a place or community. Two years of studying in Norway have only intensified his fascination with disappearing rituals and cultural and social fragmentation


We may be only weeks into 2016, but Robel Temesgen is already having a good year. This young Ethiopian artist (b1987), who studied at Addis Ababa’s Ale School of Fine Arts and Design, has just spent two years completing an MFA in the bitter cold of Norway, at Tromsø Academy of Contemporary Art, the world’s most northerly art school. In January, his first solo London exhibition was launched, and he returned to Addis Ababa to set up his own studio while also fulfilling his commitments as a newly elected member of the Young Academy, at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste.

Temesgen’s London show opened on 7 January at Tiwani Contemporary, with an interview the following day conducted by the celebrated curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Last year, Obrist spent two days in Addis Ababa with Temesgen, who took him to meet all the key players on the capital city’s art scene, from artists to professors at the well-regarded Ale art school (established 1958) where Temesgen now teaches – as does the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, who is a visiting professor.

Eliasson has, in his own quiet way, helped to boost the profile of Ethiopia within the global art community, finding inspiration there for his work (Little Sun), as well as teaching and exhibiting (his last show in the region, Time-sensitive Activity, was held at the Modern Art Museum Addis Ababa, from 27 February to 15 April 2015). He is not alone in being fascinated by the culture of this ancient country. Ethiopia is the one African nation that has never submitted to colonial rule. Although it dabbled with Soviet-style communism, the closest it came to being colonised was a five-year period when Mussolini’s Italian forces occupied the capital, from 1936-41; they left little behind apart from a handful of (still) surprisingly good Italian dining establishments. Its unique and unfiltered culture is, therefore, blessed with its own unadulterated language, and an age-old reverence for literature, poetry, music and the visual arts, combined with strong traditions of (Coptic) Christianity.

With as yet scant connectivity to the modern world – less than 2% of the nation is connected to the internet – memories of ancient rituals still remain, even in the younger generation, as Temesgen’s show demonstrates, with its vivid visual evocations of the Ethiopian tradition of Adbar, an honouring of the spirit of a place or community.

Asked by Obrist to clarify the meaning of the Amharic word Adbar, Temesgen said: “Adbar is a place where the spirit resides: a respected place, a natural place where people gather together and rituals happen … It could be a tree, a lake or rock. Adbar is also a place where people connect with each other, think for each other and pray for each other and the harvest to come. It brings the community together for the wellbeing of the community. But Adbar is also to do with people. (Someone) might be addressed as an Adbar for the village. It’s about connectedness. Connectivity. The most interesting part, for me, is the way a non-physical being can be the glue to make us think for each other and keep communicating. What’s important is knowing about it and trying to protect it.”

For this exhibition, Temesgen has returned from the video of his most recent projects to paint. Obrist raised the idea of “painting as a protest against forgetting”. For Temesgen, it was about removing himself, physically, from the picture so that he was neither in the work nor physically framing the view of it. He asserted: “Adbar is not about the individual, so I had to detach myself from the work.”

Obrist moved on to handwriting as another ritual in danger of disappearing, in order to introduce Temesgen’s 2014 work, Another Old News. Here, subjective and, inevitably, wildly varying accounts of recent and old “news” stories, solicited mainly through Ethiopia’s Facebook, were compiled by Temesgen into a handwritten “newspaper”: a commentary on government censorship and the randomness of human interpretations/recollections v the formulaic and prejudicial practices of global media agencies.

Migration is currently a hot topic, but Temesgen was ahead of the curve, as Obrist pointed out, with the work he created for a group exhibition in Addis Ababa, in 2013, The Girl is Present. Thousands of young Ethiopians are attempting to escape agricultural poverty and limited work opportunities by applying for work in the Middle East, a process that brings with it many humiliations and sometimes disastrous consequences, both economic (money sent back for investment often fails to reach its intended recipients) and social (many young people never return, depleting their family and community resources). For this group show, Temesgen applied to be a migrant worker, and went through the process of having his fingerprints taken, as well as a large full-body portrait – apparently this is demanded by Middle Eastern employers to show that no limbs are missing. “It’s like slavery,” said Temesgen. “I started in the gallery, dressed up in the way that people are asked to dress up there, and tried to present myself as one of these potential employees.” He also displayed 100 genuine applicants’ photos (pasting a photo of his own face on to the bodies, with sometimes comical or grotesque results), and invited visitors to have their own fingerprints taken. Later, Temesgen told me of the difficulties that many agricultural workers face when called to give fingerprints, because hard manual labour in the fields removes them altogether. “If they want those work permits, they have to give up work – not earning any money – for three months until their fingerprints grow back,” he said. This group exhibition helped to bring to greater public attention the abuses of Ethiopian workers – both before and after they reach the Middle East – which had, until then, been largely ignored or downplayed by the government.

Generally, Addis Ababa is a difficult place to find or create platforms for new work. So Obrist wanted to highlight Temesgen’s response: together with German artist Raul Walch, Temesgen is proposing to create his own video art gallery in a Lada - Cinema Lada – which he will then tour around the city and the wider regions. Cinema Lada, says Temesgen, connects Ethiopia, Germany and Russia through their connection with the Lada car [initially designed and made in Soviet Russia, the car became ubiquitous in communist East Germany as well as Ethiopia]. Says Temesgen: “The Lada is very visible on the streets of Addis as a taxi. That is interesting because the past is often very difficult to find on the streets. This car, coming from the Soviet time, still has a vivid presence in the city. For that, I treat it as a living monument. In Russia and Germany, however, that car has almost vanished from their streets.”

The car is still very much a symbol of affluence in Ethiopia, a situation that Temesgen explored with his Buy Me a Car project, in which he asked individuals to contribute a very modest amount of money in Ethiopian currency (1 birr, the equivalent of about 3p). He is hopeful that this long-term grassroots crowdfunding initiative may eventually raise 300,000 Birr (around £9,900) so he can buy a car. “The final outcome will be an exhibition with the 300,000 names of everyone who has donated 1 birr,” he said.

A final question from the floor, however, provided the highlight of the night. With only his paintings present in the gallery, Temesgen was quizzed about how differently he might use video. He told us about a piece he created after he first arrived in Norway, during the Easter holidays. He found Tromsø almost completely deserted, because, he said: “Religion has been removed from the holiday and Easter becomes a time for people to go hiking and skiing … Since nobody was there to greet me, I decided that I had to greet the place.”

Temesgen chose to do so in the garb of one of Ethiopia’s wandering monks who, traditionally, might come to a city during a religious festival, and display his devotion by chanting and flagellating himself in a public space. This he duly did, on a main traffic highway, outside a stark, modernist church, in the freezing cold, wearing little more than shorts, a ragged fleece and – a concession to the sub-zero temperatures - stout boots. Temesgen seemed to enjoy describing the rather unlikely reaction of the townsfolk as much as he had clearly enjoyed the potential frisson of this spectacle of a self-flagellating, half-dressed, Ethiopian pseudo-monk in an affluent, entirely white, Norwegian town: “The main audience I had were very polite police, who came and told me to put more clothes on and not to get cold. I did it for five days and the police car, which drove slowly past every day, was the most audience I had.” (You can watch the video here.)

Intrigued by his practice and wanting to know more about the current show, Studio International spoke to him at length after the Obrist interview.

Veronica Simpson: I am fascinated by this notion of Adbar. It seems incredibly relevant to our lives today, as our cities and communities transform and our social connections multiply and fragment ever more rapidly.

Robel Temesgen: [To me] the fascinating thing is how it becomes humanised and embedded now without being involved in rituals. It starts to have no place in the life we’re having now. The developments that the country (Ethiopia, as well as elsewhere) is following, the lifestyle has shifted very fast. This has discouraged such connectivity and stability. These things are stabilising methods for society that are not happening. You could call it segregation. People have been removed from their life that they have been living for ages, and pushed all the way to the outskirts of the city, living in these condominiums that will not stay for even 30 or 40 years. And you won’t live in them for more than two years usually, because the prices go up. This means losing your Adbar. Losing your community that you’ve been related to. Everyone is in a constant movement, which is not allowing people to have a stabilised Adbar … I wanted to bring it back to life in this form, so we would have this discussion and talk about what is getting lost and what is of value in it.

VS: Was there a special place or somewhere you were thinking of when you started this project?

RT: I had one year of research time. I started to approach people to tell me what they think of Adbar, what they remember of it. In December 2014, I went to Ethiopia and to my home town. I went to many places in the north, and to Debre Zeyit, where there is a huge celebration of Ireechaa, a very special event in the culture of Oromo people [Ethiopia’s single largest ethnic group]. It’s this festivity celebrating the spirit of the past season, and every weekend … you would see people, or an individual doing the ritual, the offering, making the coffee with a beautiful ceremony. I went there to observe and talk to the people … [to get] first-hand information in an informal way, but also to get the impressions in a visual way. I was observing the leftovers of the rituals, the structure of the objects, the trees, the lakes, the mountains. That was almost a six-month process of trying to contemplate it. Talking to people was the most fascinating thing that made me decide not to do a video, but a painting. It’s actually very important to me not to offend this phenomenon. It needs a lot of respect. And I really didn’t want to interrupt that by putting my body into it. So I decided to put it into paintings. I didn’t want to do Adbar as it is, but I tried to think about the interviews I made, the fantasies that people told me, coming together and influencing these unearthly paintings … I also tried to let go of my formal education of painting … I studied a very formal, social-realist kind of painting curriculum. I had to challenge myself to get out of that skill that I already had.

VS: Some of the paintings remind me of Odilon Redon, both in the use of colour and the dreamlike quality. One of the quotes I love of Redon’s is that he wanted to “place the visible at the service of the invisible”. It struck me that this is very much what you are trying to do.

RT: Yes, that’s a wonderful saying. When you look at Japanese printmaking and ink paintings, they are very spiritual. Skunder (Alexander) Boghossian, who is a well-known Ethiopian artist who lived in the States, has also those amazing dreamlike images, of Africa; African visions.

VS: Given how technology is accelerating our sense of disconnection from the physical world, it must be a relief in some ways to get back to Addis, where the internet and smartphones have not permeated every aspect of people’s lives.

RT: Oh, yes, this kind of disease hasn’t got there yet - technological obsessions and accessing information from the hand. You have to talk to people to ask things. I’m almost impressed by how many phone calls I have to receive and make every day; how many people you have to shake hands with, and how many people you have to hug.

VS: It must have been something of a culture shock when you arrived in Norway.

RT: Norway has one of the fastest internet connections. When I went to Norway, this was one of the huge inputs that I wanted access to, because Norwegian resources are very much open to the arts scene. It has opened up even more to me, in the context of an Ethiopian going to the northernmost art academy in the world. And I had the privilege of travelling around, visiting most arts platforms. Being an Ethiopian in Norway, being selected to represent Norway at a competition, it was a really interesting inversion.

VS: But you chose to return to Ethiopia to continue your work.

RT: That is the great privilege I have, being in Ethiopia, being able to travel through the country and being able to experience first-hand the life of it. It is one of the most poetic places and the people are among the most poetic people I’ve experienced. The way that life is built, the expression we have is “wax and gold” [important messages or symbols (gold) are conveyed in a non-threatening and hidden way (covered with wax)] From the outside, what you see is the wax. You have to be in the place to understand and see the gold.

VS: Were you not tempted to stay in Norway, however, and take advantage of the fantastic support and funding there is for the arts?

RT: Most of the movements in art and society have come out of a need of some kind - mostly the need of representation, of presence, of existence, assistance, acknowledgement. When there is a case like Norway, which I’m so impressed by, a nation that has made such an achievement from that end, and I’m so grateful for the assistance it has given me, there could be a tendency for the artist to be laid back and to enjoy what is offered; that is the dangerous part of it. Unless the artist is self-challenging, self-criticising, you could go from grant to grant, gallery to gallery, and do this enormous number of shows and get money for it, and really almost forget what society needs from the artist.

That is such a contrast with Addis. Addis Ababa has almost zero budget from the state and the institutions, yet individuals and institutions, despite this challenge, can develop something with fewer resources and which can be accessed by society. This is a very interesting phenomenon to engage with. But also I want to try to find a way to make sure the artist exists, is visible, the artist voice is heard, without being that much affected by this economical situation.

Home – going there and being rooted – is what it means for me, and having the opportunity to access the rest. To try to be really engaged in the continent and understand all of the other discourses that include me … We have a situation where there’s no freedom of expression, huge restrictions. They are shutting down newspapers, shutting down websites, damning TV stations from abroad. (The concept of) wax and gold has a huge potential in this society.

VS: Can you give me an example of the way this wax and gold might work as a kind of subtle protest?

RT: Me and [Ethiopian curator] Mihret Kebede, through Netsa Art Village, an artist-run initiative (in Addis Abbaba), we proposed this project, to ask artists to do a project using the concept of wax and gold. We got support from the Prince Claus Fund (for Culture and Development), and we invited Julia Farrington, from Index on Censorship, to talk about freedom of expression from an artist’s perspective. We did a one-week workshop. Then the second week, we had an exhibition throughout the city. Twenty-one artists – from Scotland, Kenya, Zambia and Ethiopia –participated. We would travel with buses full of visitors from A to B to see the projects. This one project, Chairs of the House by Dariwos Hailemichael, was based on the chairs in the parliament of Ethiopia. He made very similar chairs constructed out of used plastic water bottles, and they were really not strong enough for people to sit on. It was a symbol of a conversation with parliament chairs. It was not saying anything about the parliament chairs except putting them very close to the parliament building. So this reflects very directly on the situation, but also [means] that the artist doesn’t get confronted by the authorities.
[You can see Wax and Gold here, Performance Art in Addis Ababa, 2013.]

VS: It sounds like a troubling and fascinating time to be an artist in Ethiopia.

RT: That’s why I feel I need to be there. I need that kind of set up, that kind of chaos so that I find more and more subjects to deal with, to challenge myself with.

Robel Temesgen: Adbar is at Tiwani Contemporary, London, until 6 February 2016.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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