ኣሕታሚ እምኵሉ Emkulu Publisher

Artist of the Depths within Self

“Dream is the beginning of creation. I am a dreamer. My dream is a wheel. I dream in my imagination. I dream in my intellect. I dream in my talks. I dream in [others’ faces]. I dream in void. I dream in chaos. I dream…,” wrote artist Ermias Ekube in a brochure for his 2003 art exhibition titled ‘Dreams of Consciousness’.
His words reminded me how modern artists branched off from the preconceived way of studio painting in the late 19th century. According to Lorenz Eitner’s book An Outline of 19th Century European Painting: From David through Cézanne, the realist painters pressing concern was devising ‘interesting’ subjects. Eitner states, “The success of their work depended in large part on the cleverness of the thought expressed in it, in other word, on its dramatic, poetic, or historical theme and the effectiveness of its staging.” However, a group of painters broke this rule of painting that applied invisible brush strokes producing photographic-image-looking subject matters. The group, mainly including Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monetand Pierre-Auguste Renoir at the beginning, known as Impressionists took painting practiced in studios to the open to explore nature especially the effects of light on colour.  Subject matters did not have to be necessarily ‘relevant’. Eitner in the same book indicated that they emphasized on visual experience, optical facts of vision, light, and colour excluding a wide range of themes and subjects.

rom “Breath of Consciousness” exhibition

These artists followed by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh under the influence of Camille Pissarro led the Post-Impressionist art movement. They played very significant roles in giving direction to the artistic work to a higher level. And for that reason, they are known as fathers of modern art. The breaking of the rules that restricted artistic works helped the next generation of artist to reach to an extent of art works without representational objects. The visions or dreams of the artists made it possible to culminate to that degree. Going back to Ermias’s words, they give one the sense that his artworks would be of what he envisions and ponders in his mind.
Ladies in Beauty Saloon

Ermias – who was born and got his education in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – experiments various modern art concepts and techniques of painting. He has also staged very numerous art exhibitions in various places. As one enters his place to visit his studio, one sees what Ermias’s creativity turned scrap materials into works of art. His innovation bolsters the idea of art as a creative endeavour. While his creativity and painting skills are still in place, his work could be considered as open-ended in what they provide the audience. One is given the chance to ramble around them and get a feeling out of them. His artworks do not stress realistic paintings. At times people who have come to make out some meanings or messages from his work find themselves in doubt if they understood anything. Due to that, asking what his philosophy behind his work becomes reasonable.

from “Breath of Consciousness” exhibition

Talking with a steady tone, Ermias said that artistic life adheres to a simpler life. He went on that it is not concerned with conventional kind of life. It tries to give or find meaning to mysteries of life. An artist questions what everyone takes for granted; there is nothing prescribed; an artist does not accept what is told without questioning. Therefore, he said, that that drives him to explore and/or experiment at what he does. He looks at things in terms of visual elements always immersed in the process of artistic creativity. Ermias added that for that reason on many of his paintings he may have nothing to say in words. In such occasions some may ask: “Didn’t you paint it?” He then feels like he had simply been a channel to a muse. He might not even recognize some of his works and appreciate how he came up with the idea. In such kinds of works, the audience will be expected to explore things by looking at the artwork.

A Portrait of Samuel

His exhibitions usually accommodate few paintings with representational objects as their subjects. Since the misconception that abstract art is a creative work with a certain message channelled by hidden images is very common among many people, many take his work for an abstract art. Ermias agrees that he uses some abstract idioms not in their literal meanings. According to his explanation, however, in terms of form, line, colour and composition, they are visual idioms to convey some feelings. He further compared it with instrumental music saying that it is hard to tell what the musical composition literally means but it can provoke some different kinds of feelings. He added that such works usually inspire another with slight similarity and form a chain of them. Some works created out of the chain then would not be remembered for the previous ones may form a style of the person.
According to an article “Understanding Abstract Art” written by Harley Hahn, an American artist, abstract art is divided into two types. “The first type of abstract painting portrays objects that have been ‘abstracted’ (taken) from nature. Although what you see may not look realistic, it is close enough that you can, at least, get an idea of what you are looking at. …A second type of abstract painting, sometimes referred to as ‘pure’ abstract art, is even more obtuse. Such paintings do not reflect any form of conventional reality: all you see are shapes, colours, lines, patterns, and so on.”

Soft Wind

So it appears that Ermias’s works dwell on both types described above while experimenting on form and colour. Yet, whatever kind of art we call it, the forms and colours in his work without explicit presentation of objects keeps one’s mind to ponder over them and feel something. At times, a lifelike painting of man in white jellabiapulling a few heads of camel would receive a nod of approval on not more than a few seconds’ scrutiny. If audience remember it long after they left the exhibition hall, it would be rare. That is not because men in jellabia or camels are not to everyone’s liking. It is only that it is a very common image and painted mechanically by many artists. In contrast, Harley Hahn on the above stated article indicated that many were struck by abstract works of Wassily Kandinsky’s “Improvisation 7” and Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist”. These two paintings do not depict any recognizable object but irregular shapes and patterns. However, the flow and harmony of colour in them draw one’s mind into them.
Mother and Bride

In a 2003 painting which Ermias titled “Mother and child by night” (acrylic on canvas), his experiment seems to have been influenced by cubist style of painting. This painting evokes the same feeling of sadness as one feels seeing women selling eggs and cigarettes when walking in downtown Asmara in late evenings. The figures in this painting do not depict ragged or haggard images to buy one’s feelings; they just secure one’s sympathy with the visual idioms employed there. They are seated squat with tense body structure and with hair style that appears to be a restricting cage.

Another painting of the same year titled “The thinker and the dancer” (acrylic on canvas) is almost an allusion to Auguste Rodin’s male nude sculpture “Thinker”. The thinker here just like in Rodin’s has crossed one hand which held a book and placed the other on his chin. And he makes you keep thinking about what he might be thinking about. This is also juxtaposed by a dancer that does not have solid form. Though only an outline of a dancing woman Ermias has achieved showing intense movement of dancing. The juxtaposition of these two actions brings a feeling we get from two opposite extremes.
Age and the Switch (Lino-Cut)

A self-portrait and a portrait of his brother reveal Ermias’s skill with the impressionist way of using visible, thick and short brush strokes. They take you back to Vincent van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” and “Self-Portrait with Straw Hat” both from 1887. Beyond that they show his keenness with capturing the effects of light on colour. A close look at these two paintings leaves one blank. One only sees a fragment of colours patched together. It is only when one has a far look at them that one realizes what they depict. Speaking on this, Ermias said that he was only concentrating on the changing tones of the colour on the faces. It is at end of the process that the form stands out. Elaborating this, he said that as he talked with me, he was marvelling on the light falling on me, measuring it and poetically comparing the purpose of the buttons of my shirt with that of my teeth. He added that he does not see a person at times as to who he is; he might not also listen to what the person is saying only because he gets smitten with the light and its effects on the person.

The Old ‘Farnelo’ Vender (Lino-Cut)

His subjects at times vary from people of his surrounding to mythological and religious characters. He often refers poetic works also. It seems that he has been unique in his presentation of poetry and painting merged together in one canvas. On this respect, his poetic instinct has helped him to invigorate his creative faculty in searching the depth of his consciousness orchestrated metaphorically.
Many could take his trials in many kinds of styles as confusion to what style he should stick to. However, Ermias has a feeling that in the old times there were fairly distinct routines to everyone. Although not in a written form, people had a kind of job description for their activities. Like in the industrial times, life was mechanical. He went on that now, however, lifestyles are changing everyday, and people do diverse things at a time and that appears to have some impact on what kind of work he paints. He stressed that he does not want to be restricted by an object in the canvas.
Trinity (Lino-Cut)

I got a chance to watch Ermias paint a stage background at Rainbow International School. With the size of the fabric and the sketch he had prepared for the painting, I had expected that it would take him weeks to finish the work. His fast paced brush strokes didn’t impede him from achieving harmony of the varied colours. And the work was done in a couple of hours. Many also agree with the spectacular flow and harmony of colours in his paintings. When he is told about this, he gets surprised. His surprise is not with his skill but with many artists’ inability to achieve that. He said that being open to the flow of the colours brings harmony; paying too much attention on what colour to paint first and what next guided by some well-known artworks or painters makes the colours stiff and dry spoiling the wonderful form in the painting.

Ermias usually gives abstract terms related to metaphysical elements as titles to his exhibitions. Some titles of his previous exhibitions include: “If there is soul before death”, “Allegory of the self”, “Dreams of consciousness”, “Frames of consciousness” and others. This shows that Ermias has set his mind on experimenting with colours, images and concepts to explore the depths within a self.

from “Breath of Consciousness” exhibition

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