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.