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Zerihun Seyoum: A Painter's Lens of Ethiopia


Zerihun Seyoum: A Painter's Lens of Ethiopia

I know one person who lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  His name is Zerihun Seyoum and he is a painter.  I learned about him this summer while at the Center Waaw, an art residency in Saint Louis, Senegal.  Staffan and Jarmo, the two wonderful people who run the place, showed me his work, because they had exhibited it in Europe in the past.  Having once seen images of Zerihun’s paintings, I found that they are not easily forgotten.  They have a disquieting voice and a persistence about them. They, like the city he paints, seem never to be asleep. If his paintings could be people, they would be restless insomniacs, ready to speak to anyone who walks by.  The potential and the vulnerability contained in such an encounter is perfectly encapsulated in a painting called “Making the Line.”  It shows a child drawing a line, though the balance of power could be more in favor of the line than the child.  No wonder: to draw a line is to make a miracle, and miracles are dangerous.  In Zerihun’s paintings--not just a disaster-- but a global cataclysm is often just a hair away, yet he mercifully keeps his paintings balanced between miracle and disaster.I was very glad and grateful that Zerihun agreed to an interview for Project Inkblot.  I hope he does not mind that when I pass through Addis, I will come find him in his studio. We certainly would love to have him visit us in New York.

If someone asked me to describe your paintings, I think I would mostly use verbs. You rarely depict a moment of stillness: people, objects and places are almost always depicted amidst a very active universe, and they are active themselves. Everything is on the move, and this movement is very energetic. 

Sometimes this movement seems to verge on a collision or some sort of accident. On your canvases everything strives, yearns and reaches toward something. Can you please talk about what action means to you? And how it relates to painting as a medium? 

As an artist you don't start painting to make people, objects, and places stuck on the canvas. You know and feel so many ways to express things and at the same time you are on a blank canvas yourself. It’s a long process happening on the inside, but when it comes out, it's a thing that's expressed in the moment--all at once--so there's a lot of simultaneous movement, and so there is constant movement in my paintings.

This happens not just in painting but also other art.  And so then to study something is different from living it on the inside.  By living through paintings, you always feel something unexpressed or unrevealed, and it makes you anxious to express that feeling.

Throughout my life, all my fun, enjoyment, relationships--it's all expressed through painting and art.  After I finish a painting, it makes me feel everything that is going on, not just in my life but also in other people’s lives.  This can be viewed as a kind of medicine. With words you can express feelings in some way, but when you finish what you have said it always seems like there is more to say. But painting is a medium capable of infinite expression and speaks more than words.

The reason behind all of the movement and energy in my painting is in large part because I think that now, more than ever, painting should be for and about everyone.  But it's also there for personal reasons. It possesses me. There is the actual, physical act of painting.  Each separate work has an artist and a painting that is specific to this one work.  But in life, I always wonder why these things come to me: a disturbing moment, a beautiful moment, any type of moment. At the same moment in time there is a collision of feelings - like you can paint something disturbing but there is joy from just the expression of it. It's like you are born when you start to paint, and when it's finished, you grow up. With that growing up comes knowledge, but thereafter there is again ignorance because you realize what you don't know and that you are new again at the finish. That makes me strive to create, learn and grow further.

Do you want things to collide and break into pieces? Are they always about to merge, to stop being objects, and become abstract paintings? 

Yes they are. That's why in a figurative way, the compositions are balanced. I don't do any sketching before I paint, rather the images tumble out from within me. It's a raw process, but it doesn't mean it comes easily. What I create comes from appreciation, whether it's disturbing or beautiful, it's all beautiful. It comes from the wonder of life. When you are exposed to a lot in life, you live beyond your senses; and to express that experience, it's difficult to put into words. Each piece represents a million stories inside the balanced chaos of my mind and heart, and so the piece represents that. But it's like asking a poet what is your exercise to write a poem?  It's hard to put the process into words. You just express it and live it. It's different than when you are educated and get an academic training. The academic training allows you to understand what a work of art means and enables you to use professional words to describe it, but it's not a vehicle to fully and truly express yourself when you are painting.

Immediacy is another quality of your work that seems apparent.  Things happen in the moment. How do you achieve this effect? Do you rely on memory, drawing, photography?  Is there a relationship between immediacy and memory in painting and in your painting?

I do not rely on memory, drawing or photography.

When you have been making art for a long time—I cannot yet say I have been for a long, long time, but still, from my experience in art in my life thus far—you think about so many things. Sometimes you enjoy thinking, reflecting, even more than painting. I find that there are so many ideas that your mind is working to process constantly, that I never made a lot of them into paintings. What I think about becomes realized 5, 6, or even 7 years later.

When I have an idea, it's only in time that it can become a physical painting. Sometimes I have an idea and start painting but leave the work unfinished, and it remains unfinished because I don't quite understand it - and maybe it’s a great idea but not a great painting at that point.  Often, these creations are completed years after I thought of them. I see things on the street, at home, on TV, from so many different mediums, and at the moment they can affect me, they make me smile, they are humorous, they touch me, and I may try to paint them in the moment but they remain unfinished, because I'm still processing them subconsciously for years. After I finish a piece for a long time there is comfort.

I think in life it is similar: you don't always process what you see in the moment, you see so many things but you don't see or understand so many things.  All of it gets processed eventually, and in fact, 4 or 5 years later it may shape a person's life. I might be different from 5 or 6 years ago, but I make a painting that comes from an idea that was on the surface back then, and was processed over time.  There is immediacy in every moment of the process, but not necessarily in creating the final piece.

If I make a painting that strives to address an issue in the world, I don't paint it as an issue out there in the world, but make it an individual, personal reflection.  I believe that while anyone can say things, it can be challenging to practice self-expression.  And the more you want to explore yourself, the more it seems dangerous. But once you do it, it just as difficult to go back. It's also addictive because you have trained yourself in this way, and you present your life in this kind of medium, so physically you become addicted to what you paint with, like oils, etc., but emotionally you also become addicted to exploring, expression, and you don't know what the end result is, but you just want to explore. In some ways it's dangerous. The addictive feeling of expression and exploration is dangerous, but it's good too.  So you explore, you can get scared of yourself, and you try to stop yourself from exploring, but you can't contain it or stop it because you have already gone there.  And so as a painter the more you develop your feelings and explore, the more you create with meaning.

So much of your work shows urban life.  But this is not a city like any I have ever seen in Europe or in the States.  Could you please describe your relationship to the city you paint. 

I'm based in Addis Ababa, though my work could be based on any city.  Though for me Addis is special because here you see the same traditional things happening that you would have seen 3000 years ago, and at the same time you see the modern, cosmopolitan lifestyle. You don't even have to go very far to see tradition: it's right outside your door, and normally you would go to see this kind of tradition in a festival, but living in Addis is like living in a festival every day.

I don’t exactly see a city as a cityscape.  Cities have their own portraits, their own face, there are a lot of things going on, so I do not concentrate on a silent, still place.  Rather, I choose vibrant, chaotic and dramatic places, which give you a kind of tension.  I never have a silent experience.

And, like any person, I am influenced by my surroundings: their specific color, texture, lines. If you are living in a vibrant place, you get impressed by that, even subconsciously.  You can see, for example, how in Diego Rivera’s work—he lived in Mexico—how his environment influenced him strongly and with such richness, and so it's the same for me here. And so for me, maybe I see a similarity between artists who live in places that are somehow similar.

It's like when you are young and you are learning a new alphabet, and so you use these letters you are taught as shapes to create meaningful words. When you are young, you first learn to write the actual letters and how to shape the letters. In a painting the shapes of the city are my letters.  Over time you learn to create these letters, you build your vocabulary, and ultimately you become fluent about the city.  And in fact you see that this language--the shapes of the city--is a universal language and can be the vocabulary of any city anywhere in the world.

In general, what are some of the places, urban or not, that you love the most in this world? And why?

A place where there is fast change. I like that for my work. Spontaneous places for inspiration. I grew up mostly in this kind of environment. I grew up in a market, so in a market you just never feel like something will stay there for long, rather you grow up to know that there is always change. I'm driven by change, and I can't stop change, so I create from it, and any place has that kind of energy, movement and dynamic nature. There is a lot of dynamism in color, and shape, and texture, so that means when you are in the middle of your studio you may have stillness to sit and think and create, and this contrasts with what's happening outside.

Your paintings always tell a story.  What does narrative mean to you? 

I don't like to stick too much to the story about how my childhood influenced me, because I'm not a child anymore.  It's in the past. I have lived and continue to live since then. But one thing that stays with me is that my mother always bought books and she loved the books with pictures inside them so she would buy those. Instead of reading the words in the book, I would read aloud the images.  I would see the images and I would tell the story of the book out loud, and so when she would hear me read the text she’d think that I was already reading.  Then she would read the text and be surprised by what I illustrated because she heard me say so many things that were similar to the story. And even in later years when I was taught about Ethiopian traditional paintings at school, I was taught to discuss the powerful colors and distortions of the image that communicate the idea of the artwork.  This was how I learned to understand and express what was written in images.

In school I studied a lot of European artists, but I found that after I graduated I just went back to my childhood and to the traditional Ethiopian art and even also to contemporary art to become inspired. For me art is not just about solving abstractly a problem of color or texture. As a person who grew up in the kind of place where I grew up, there is so many things to say and so many things to express, and so I paint those things.  But I don't think all my paintings are necessarily about telling a story, rather, they are a mix of realism and abstract and semi-abstract expression. Storytelling is its own discipline, while paintings are the result of an art process, and in a lot of ways paintings are more expressive than storytelling.  But if you start looking into the details of the painting you will see color, texture, and distortion, and all together they are pieces of a story.  Paintings are like poems. They are a form of expression - and they don't have a beginning and they don't have an end. In the end, the painting has it's own life, and it has a different life for different people.  My paintings have themes, but ultimately I am just giving people my moment, my emotions, my entire life displayed on a canvas.

Where do you stand in relationship to the Ethiopian tradition in the visual art, and how do you relate to the Western painting tradition?

I love to see western art in a book, and even walk around in a museum by myself to look at original paintings. Yet in western or Ethiopian art, both have strong similarities with respect to the artistic process, whether these paintings are cave drawings, or of modern life.  In Ethiopian art I can see the same qualities I see in European art, and the same in traditional as in modern art. They all produce powerful and expressive pieces. And you can see this in eastern art too. There is richness that inspires me in all painting traditions.

If someone were to introduce you as an "African painter", what would you think about such an introduction?  

There is something you derive from experience that then becomes the creative force that depicts your feelings in a painting.  And this means that there is a universal quality to the feelings of any human being.  On a professional level people are comfortable with making labels like this.  In Africa and Ethiopia, art travels within the people because it's a part of their day-to-day living. In Europe, in the Western tradition, art has been well categorized, studied and analyzed on an institutional level for the last 500 years.  But here it's not been studied in the same way.  Here galleries and museums treat art in a kind of traditional way, through a historical approach. At the same time, here in Africa and in Ethiopia, art can happen anywhere: in the home or in the street, it is less formalized and institutionalized, so when someone is introduced as an African painter or an Ethiopian painter, I get this idea of a non-formalized and non-institutionalized environment.  I am born in Ethiopia, so of course I'm an Ethiopian artist and an African artist, but on different level, I have encountered other artists from other countries to whom I relate easily in terms of my artistic process and artistic experiences.

What trends in contemporary Western art do you find interesting?

I especially like the development of conceptual art movement in the west. I enjoy graffiti art of the west, which has become mainstream, it is strong and I really enjoy it.  I like the way someone like Banksy is able to exhibit art in an innovative way, using innovative mediums.  This engages people.  It engages those who wouldn't otherwise choose this kind of art.  It also engages and exposes people who wouldn't be interested in experiencing art at all.

One of my favorite paintings of yours is Composition II.  Is there anything you would want to say about it? 

This painting shows how you can expose yourself too much. When you grasp something without any filters it means that you can be new to the world while actually being physically older. The world tells the story of old age, and we, as individuals, we are babies. So although we might think we are as old as the world, we are not, and we might think that the world began with us, but it did not.  We are ultimately a part of this bigger universe. The world is very old and we are so young compared to it, so as newcomers we can't say we are really exposed to the world.

If you were not born a painter, what profession would you choose for yourself?

A painter's apprentice.

Check out Zerihun on the web and on Facebook

Interview by Maria Doubrovskaia