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A Talk with Eritrean Artist Elsa Gebreyesus
At AddisTunes, we love art and always do our best to introduce the world to artists that are near and dear to our hearts. One of our favorites is the globe-trotting, humanitarian, and women’s rights activist Elsa Gebreyesus…hailing from the land of Lucy and Selam (aka Ethiopia)…but of Eritrean extraction. To see some of her work, check out www.elsabet.com, but make make sure to read our interview below first.
AT: Elsa, first…thanks for your time. We know you’ve been a busy woman lately. For those who are just discovering your work, can you tell us a little about your background?
EG: Like many Eritreans, I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia but my family moved to Nairobi, Kenya when I was very young due to the political situation in Ethiopia. Most of my childhood memories are from Nairobi where I went to elementary and middle school.
AT: Wow…ok….so what were the circumstances that brought you to the U.S. and Canada, and what about your dedication to working with women in Eritrea?
EG: My family moved again when there was a short lived coup d’état in Kenya and my parents wanted us to live in a more politically stable environment. We first moved to the US where I completed high school, but at the time we couldn’t stay in the US so we moved to Canada. I went to university in Canada and I graduated around the same time that Eritrea became an independent nation.
Almost every family was affected by the war in Eritrea and although I was Eritrean, I had never been to Eritrea. After I graduated from university, I wanted to go back, visit the villages that my parents were from and at the same time work with the women of Eritrea. Eritrean culture is very patriarchal, yet during the struggle for independence, women played a pivotal role in the revolution. Images of women fighters like the photograph that intrigued you of Lemlem affected me as well, so I decided if I were to go back I wanted to work with the women of Eritrea.
EG: When I went back to Eritrea in 1992, I worked as a Project Officer for the National Union of Eritrean Women, an indigenous non-profit organization. I worked on developing literacy projects, income-generating programs, conducting research, and was able to travel throughout the country working on the various projects. I initially went to Eritrea for one year as a volunteer, but ended up staying and working in Eritrea for five years. I worked for NUEW for a few years then worked with a private company for the remainder of my time there.
Working in Eritrea was an enlightening experience. I had gone back with an idealistic view of how I could affect change in the country, but the reality of all the challenges facing the country was a sobering realization. Progress for many developing nations takes time and is rife with cultural, social, economic and political variables, which take years to resolve. Eritrea is still on that path of growth and development.
AT: You know, for many of us…Eritrea is kind of a black box – there is just so much we don’t know. So how about your artistic passion…when did you first realize that you wanted to pursue art seriously?
EG: I’ve always had a creative side and enjoyed the arts ever since I was young, but I realized I wanted to pursue visual arts after my experience in Eritrea. One of the things I noticed when I was there was that most of the art in Eritrea was directly influenced by the political movement. When people live in a war-torn country, struggling for the basic needs of food, shelter and political freedom, it is not exactly the most conducive environment for a vibrant arts culture. Yet despite the hardships that people endured, people still found ways to express joy, beauty and focus on the positive aspects of their lives. This was a profound lesson in my life and made me realize that painting was one of the ways I wanted to express joy and beauty in my life. I initially started painting for myself but over time started exhibiting and pursuing it more seriously.
AT: One of the things I find amazing about Africa art is the sheer diversity across the continent, and I was especially excited to discover your work because I find that the West’s depiction of African art tends to be particularly one-sided. Let us ask you, do you have any advice for other aspiring artists?
EG: Even though this sounds cliché, my advice is to find your bliss. Find what brings you joy and pursue it. Often people feel like they have to make a big splash in whatever genre they pursue or feel like they have to make it big. My advice is first to find what brings you joy, to start small, to start local and keep pursuing your goals and the universe will participate in unfolding your dreams.
AT: I noticed your works tends toward the abstract. How did you develop your preference for abstract compositions? Or in terms of your approach to the creative process, where do you even begin?
EG: We are all drawn to art that moves us. I cannot put into words what I feel when I go to museums and sit in front some of the abstract paintings of Rothko, Motherwell or Diebenkorn. Even though I am so different from the artists that created the work, I connect to the art on a deeper level. One of my favorite quotes is “Abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can clarify in paint” by Georgia O’Keefe. That sums up why I am drawn to abstract compositions. There are so many aspects of our lives that are abstract, that cannot be expressed in words and if we can experience all the different areas of our lives using our other senses, I believe we are richer for it.
Although the creative process is different for each artist, I believe that we all tap into the creative well that exists in all of us. Often times at the beginning of the process, my work is chaotic. I start with a loose sketch, line work, determine the colors for the piece then slowly begin the conversation, the push and pull to get to the end. It is always personal. I like to work in a series so that I have a cohesive theme for a set of paintings and work to explore ideas over a period of time. My work is an amalgamation of my experiences; my cultural heritage, my experiences living in Africa and the West, the lens through which I see the world and each piece is a way to express those ideas.
AT: See, I knew there was a reason I liked your work! I’m also a big fan of Mark Rothko. In fact, I think I sense a similar use of color in each of your compositions. To keep this convo going, which artists or artistic traditions do you admire most?
EG: There are so many artists that I admire especially the artists from the abstract expressionist movement like the artists I mentioned earlier. I also love the work of African artists like Ibrahim Salahi, Malangatana, Skunder Boghossian and many more. There are so many artists that inspire me, too many to list but I have to mention Romare Bearden, Louise Bourgeois, I could go on…
AT: One of my personal favorite pieces you did is “Ancestry in Motion.” Where did you find the inspiration for this piece?
EG: “Ancestry in Motion” is part of a series called “Returning to the Source”, a series that explores my cultural heritage and experiences in Africa. One of my favorite artists is Wosene Kosrof, a modern Ethiopian artist. His work explores Fidel, the writing system of Ethiopia and Eritrea, my series “Returning to the Source” was inspired by his work and is my interpretation of the symbols using my own visual language for the abstract compositions.
AT: Is there anything that you wanted this piece to convey to the viewer?
EG: Part of the beauty of abstract art for me is that the viewer brings their own interpretation to the piece, but my intention with this series of work was to incorporate the ancient with the modern, the old with the new and use that as a metaphor for so many of us who are from old cultures but also live in modern societies or those who can connect to that concept, thus the title for the pieces – ancestry in motion.
AT: I noticed that you are also very involved in human rights. Which organizations are near and dear to your heart?
EG: There are so many organizations that do great work around the world and Africa in particular but I have to mention Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and independent online Eritrean news organizations that are the only source of independent media.
AT: In fact, I want to thank you for the timing of this interview. Although you may not be aware of it, September 2011 marked a deeply disturbing anniversary in Eritrea. It was 10 years ago that the Eritrean government cracked down on free press and open political debate when they imprisoned a number of prominent government officials, newspaper editors and journalists. Those individuals have been detained indefinitely in undisclosed prisons ever since without access to lawyers or formal charges. No one really knows how many are still alive or still imprisoned despite pressure from human rights organizations and governments around the world. One of my ongoing series of paintings titled ‘Silenced’ is a tribute to those who tried to choose the power of free press and open dialogue to bring about change in the country.
AT: So where can we expect to see your art on display next?
EG: My work is currently on exhibit at Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore, Maryland (www.galeriemyrtis.com) and anyone interested can view my work online on my website www.elsabet.com. All information about upcoming exhibits will be posted online.
AT: Is there anything you’d like to share with the world?
EG: I would like to thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts about my work and to say that even though it is overwhelming sometimes about how much needs to be done, we have to be grateful for all the blessings in our lives and remember that each one of us can bring about positive change however large or small and be a force for good in this world.
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