Mezgebu Tesema is illustrious within the Ethiopian art sphere, not only for his professional grandiosity, but also for his down-to-earth personality. Born in North Shoa, Mezgebu got educated at the Addis Abeba University’s (AAU) School of Fine Art & Design and Ilya Efimovitch Repin Leningrad Institute of Painting, Sculpture & Architecture, Russia. The painter, admired for his rich, detailed and overwhelming naturalistic expressionist paintings, has exhibited his works across the world, from Russia to United States. He is also a common presence in the annual Sheraton Addis Art Exhibition. “The Sleeping Angle”, “The Passage”, “Kiosk”, “Dusty”, “Nigs”, “Soren” and “Dreamer” are some of works that took him to the heights of popularity. In this exclusive interview with GETACHEW T. ALEMU, OP-ED EDITOR, Mezgebu discusses childhood memories, his evaluation of modernity and his perspective on the future of Ethiopian art. Excerpts:
Q: Seeing your paintings, it seems that you have a very close association with your childhood memories. Do you actually think that these memories are important for a painter?
It depends according to the personality of an artist. Fortunately, my childhood was very nice. I had a chance to see, wonder around and discover my surroundings. But every artist has his (her) own inspiration and this inspiration varies according to the experience of the artist.
As an artist, to have a chance to have grown up in the countryside and to have such type of landscape to explore was an opportunity for me. It remains my source of inspiration. Usually, countryside boys are occupied with activities like farming or looking after cattle, among other things. But fortunately, my parents were capable to allow me to go anywhere I liked. This was a great opportunity. I am thankful for my parents.
Q: Besides childhood, you are also fond of large size canvass area. Most of your paintings are large-size canvass paintings. What advantages has that given you as a painter?
The advantage comes from your thoughts, your dreams and your plans. When I was abroad for a study, I saw big size paintings. At the time, the school encouraged us to make these large sized canvasses. Of course, that large size canvass by itself does not mean anything. It is just equipment or an art material.
It is my plan to make such kinds of paintings. Sometimes when you are just thinking about the idea, the form, the organisation of the painting itself and the landscape, you would realise that you better do it in large canvass. And if it is really possible to achieve what you want as an individual, why not?
Q: The Ethiopian painting sphere has for a very long time been dominated by abstract, abstract expressionist and surrealist art. Realistic and naturalistic expressionism is a rather contemporary phenomenon. What is the utmost challenge for painters like you to depart from the trend?
It is very difficult to accept your statement as it is. Frankly speaking, I think that the Ethiopian art has always been led by the artist’s preference and experiences. Realistic art was also practiced as much as abstract art or surrealist art, if there is surrealist actually. Generally speaking, the practice of art in the previous period was limited. If it is limited, every kind of practice is also limited.
During the Dergue regime, propaganda art was very popular. It had a form of realistic art. Honestly, 17 years is a long period of time.
When you, then, have the opportunity to practice different kinds of art, you do not know how to handle it, because in the previous time you were not free to do what you like, you know there was opportunity. Sometimes, making art is individual and sometimes it is the influence of your situation.
My realistic preference is influenced by my dream, which I had well before I become an artist. It is a matter of choice.
Q: In one of your philosophic lines, you argue that, “there is no real freedom in this world, but only a freedom of choice”. But is not the ultimate value of freedom to have freedom of choice?
Sometimes when you are talking about freedom, people think you can do whatever you like. I am just trying to express this realistically. If someone wants to engage in a certain direction, he is already free of his thoughts and free of his choice. But if somebody wants to do something but other bodies do not allow him to do that, then the person is in a condition where he is not free to choose what he likes. There is the subjective content of freedom.
There is objective content. When you think about freedom, sometimes there is a thought that it might be all about an individual. But when you see objectively, the reality is freedom is not an absolute right. Your freedom will be confirmed once you are allowed to do something. There are things people cannot do; not because somebody disallows them, but because they are limited.
Q: Your mother had a great influence in your life. What aspect of your art can strongly be associated to her influence?
My mother has a great narrative skill. There are people that are gifted with narrating. The way she talks is very attractive. At the same time, she is wise, of course by my judgement, and she knows how to handle people.
It is very difficult to categorise which aspect of my paintings are a result of her influence. But I am so loaded with these imaginary thoughts that not even my entire life is enough to express.
Q: Are you happy with your upbringing in general?
Sure, every moment of it.
Q: There are certain fundamental elements in any painting, including the form, the content and the colour. Where do you place your utmost focus?
I believe that the form itself is the content. This is because no matter what kind of object is there in a painting, the form communicates with the viewer whether it is associated with real life or internal personal feeling. Whatever object is there, if one gives attention to the form, then communication can be facilitated. Of course, in here, communication does not mean talking or dialogue. And if you communicate with the painting regardless of the object, then, that is the content of the painting.
But that content differs in line with the audience. If a person is a specialist in painting, he can communicate with it in more ways than an ordinary person. This does not mean that ordinary people are ignorant about art. As long as a person has some feeling with the painting, it means that they have certain communication with it. But the level will be different as compared to a specialist.
Q: Generally speaking, painting, and of course art, has been seeing shifts over the years, especially after the change of government in 1991. Are you comfortable with the place that painting, and art in general, is being given within the contemporary Ethiopian society?
I am comfortable in my condition. But judging comfort at country level is difficult. In order to have an educated judgment, you need to have certain facts on the ground. I often prefer to judge based on the past. I believe that if the present is better than the past, I am sure that the future will even be better than the present.
The world has never been perfect in every aspect. If it had been perfect, we would have not been doing what we are doing now. Hence, I can say that I am comfortable in certain ways and not in others.
I am working. My friends are also working. Exhibitions are hosted every week. This is by far better than the past, when you could not even see a single exhibition in six months. The developments, therefore, are encouraging. We have to appreciate what we have, and of course work hard for a better future.
Q: But what is your evaluation of the social consciousness towards art works?
It certainly is improving. In cities, different institutions are opening. Displaying halls are available. And more importantly, the number of people appreciating art works is growing. Of course, the whole improvement might not be as fast as the economic and political consciousness. Yet, there definitely is growth. There are certain aspects that need improvement, such as the quality of the art.
Q: Lately, modernity seems to be taking a grip in the country. But somehow it is materialistic modernity that is being promoted. As a painter, how do you define modernity for yourself and what do you think should be the elements of modernity?
It is a very difficult question. But if you talk about art, we are always influenced by the outside. We always follow what has being done outside. If we are talking about modernisation of art, frankly speaking, it is not our tradition. We are always influenced by the outside world. We are just practicing to continue to walk with the world – be it the outside world or the imagined world.
Q: Are you optimistic about the future of Ethiopian art?
It has never been better.
Q: Can we, then, say that it is an opportune time for a painter to be practicing the profession at this point in time?
I think so. When you compare the lives of our teachers and other artists, not considering all those who were privileged enough, of the old times with the current case, the situation has improved so much.
Q: Within the art sphere that you are living in, there has been a long overdue debate about the commercialisation of art. Where do you stand in that debate?
Commercialisation of art has always been there, even during the era of “art-for-art sake”. It really is unavoidable. Commercialisation is a relative concept in and of itself. Sometimes, when you appreciate an art work, you attach certain value to it, be it in the form of paper money, precious stone or any other rod. This value is the peoples’ language.
We attach values for commodities by measuring their usefulness or the sacrifices we have to make to obtain them. With art, value is related to the level appreciation. If you highly appreciate an art work, you would like to have it. It is this level of appreciation that defines how much you want to pay for that art work. Hence, sometimes money is used as an evaluative measure to the level of appreciation for an art work.
But on the general concept of commercialisation of art, we can do nothing but follow the other world. Globally, there are artists that commercialise their works. They do not care about the work; what they care about is their pocket. Then there are artists who are just working and do not care whether it is sold or not. For the latter, the practice and the process are more valuable than the earning.
Q: But where do you personally stand in this spectrum?
I am in the middle. Money is necessary, and I do not deny that. If you have to practice art, there are materials that you have to buy, you have to have a place to practice, and there are certain other facilities you need. This demands that you to have certain belongings.
But this does not mean that because you cannot sell, you have to throw everything out. You still have to practice art. Hence, I am in the middle.
Q: How do you personally value your painting?
It is better to ask the buyer. This is difficult for me. I was not raised in a culture with a value system of speaking about myself. But when a buyer comes to take my paintings, the threshold of agreement depends on the art work and my intention. There are artworks that I do not want to sell. Sometime you see the level of appreciation of the person to the work, and you compromise on the price. It, therefore, depends on the situation.
Q: Which are the art works that you do not like to sell and why?
It depends. The reason is that I like the works. I like the works just like the person that is buying.
Frankly speaking, if I was having enough earnings to live my life, I would not sell my works. The feeling is even very difficult to express in words.
It is like your child. You love your child because you could not help it.
Q: Speaking of children, how did having family and children influence your imagination?
There are things that you calculate in life and there are things that you feel. There are things you treat emotionally and there are things you treat rationally. In your family life, these two ways of dealing with things should be there.
Q: But how do you compare Mezgebu before and after getting married and having children?
I never had the chance to see it like that because I got married right after school. I am not a good example on such a comparison.
Q: Let me ask you about the painting that grasped huge public attention, entitled “Nigs”, which depicts the way the Ark of the Covenant is revered in a rural setting. What was your personal feeling in painting it?
“Nigs” is a big event in the countryside. I am sure that you would not tell me that a celebration that is as colourful, participatory and busy as Nigs, especially for a child in the countryside. For me, the celebration is the summary of all activities in the rural world.
During the event, everybody would be wearing their best clothes. Everyone would be willing to participate in the event voluntarily. If you are a child, you would be the major participant in the event. You would even be allowed to do almost everything that you like to do.
During my childhood, we would be wearing decorated cloaks and would have bells in our hands. We would be singing, dancing and doing all these cheerful activities. It used to be the biggest cultural moment for us. It was this same feeling that I had in painting it.
Q: How did the planning and the execution of the project to change this extraordinary feeling into a wide-canvas painting went?
It was really difficult. Even when you are first making the sketch for such a painting, it is difficult to imagine how you are going to transfer that to the big canvas. As a sketch of small size, it may look normal. But when you scale it up, it will just be another world.
It is difficult to manage. It is also difficult to capture the major aspects of the moment. Not least, it is very difficult to accomplish. It needs patience. That is why it took me three years.
Q: What was your feeling at the specific moment that you became sure that you were done with it?
Everybody dreams of doing a better work. When I first started the painting, my expectation was to shake the world. But it ended up being my work. It is accomplished already. It is a good painting, I cannot complain. But after you get done with a painting, not only this but every other, you would see it is not as you planned to do it. But the process would always be great. That is why you would just be thinking about the next work.
Q: You have been called “one of the important artists of the time”; “a prominent painter”; and “a painter with the power to inspire” by various people. How do you judge your current status as compared to where you want to see yourself?
I never have calculated the kind of artist I want to be. But I always try my best to do better work. All these comments given are peoples’ reflections. In reading or listening to them, I just say I am lucky.
Q: What painters, both from Ethiopia and from abroad, do you admire?
I like Tadesse Mesfin. I appreciate not only his paintings, but also his commitment. From abroad, I admire Paul Benny, Andrew Wyeth and Lucian Freud.
Q: If you were to name one young Ethiopian painter that you think would be one of the greatest of his time, who would that painter be?
It is a difficult question to answer, but I think it would be Fitsum Tefera, a student of mine.
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