In Conversation with Robel Temesgen Bizuayehu
Robel Temesgen Bizuayehu is an Ethiopian visual artist whose practice focuses on painting and encompasses elements of performance, installation, video and collaborative projects. In 2015, he received an MFA in Contemporary Art from the Tromso Academy of Contemporary Art and Creative Writing, University of Tromso, Norway. He also holds a BFA in Painting from the Ale School of Fine Arts and Design, Addis Abeba University,Ethiopia where he graduated in 2010, winning the Gold Medal award for the Outstanding Student. He is presently a lecturer at the same institution. He speaks with Adebimpe Adebambo on his upcoming solo exhibition, Castellated Dots in Tromso, Norway opening on May 7, as well as about his experience across different media and previous projects including his recent travelling solo show AdBar, which explores traditional Ethiopian beliefs and practices.
Who is Robel Temesgen Bizuayehu and what does your name mean?
It is a Biblical name—the first son of Jacob, meaning something like ‘yes! I got a boy’. As of who I am, it is the shortest question I intend to answer in several forms within my practice. Robel is an extension of my family and the society in general, and vice versa so it is in search of who I am (we are).
How was it like growing up in Ethiopia and what informed your decision to become an artist?
Growing up in Ethiopia was great. I believe my upbringing has much significance in my present. Most of my early childhood was spent between playing and going to a local priest to learn ‘fidel’, Amharic alphabets and religion and ethics. Following posing as a model for Aklilu Temesgen (my brother who is an artist) and his friends, I got interested in sketching and decided to attend art school in the capital, Addis Abeba.
You’ve lived in several cities in Africa and Europe, where is home to you, and what influences have you drawn from these cities in your work?
Living in different places has informed my practice. Whenever you are introduced to a new map, new thinking, new culture, racism, love, and so on, subconsciously, your work gets influenced. Where I live becomes home. But the ‘real’ home for me in the past 10 years has been Addis Abeba and I hope it is in the years to come.
Your works and performances are often cultural, religious and political commentaries on prevailing situations in Ethiopia. Why do you choose this way of working, and do you hope to encourage introspection or demand justice from the authorities?
I think it is in-between. I seek to ask the authorities what needs to be done to see justice in practice. It is also highly important for me as an artist to create a platform for the audience and I, and in a wider sense, to reflect and articulate the time we live in. What is going on in the country affects us in one way or the other. Understanding how we get affected and how we need to deal with it, are addressed on platforms like performance, painting and collaborative projects.
On graduation in 2010, you received the Gold Medal award for Outstanding Student of the Year. How has it helped your art practice?
I don’t think it has helped my practice. It helped my ego and CV maybe, but not the practice in particular.
Why do you choose to lecture instead of work as a full-time studio artist or in an art establishment like a museum, gallery or ministry of culture?
It happened because the school offered me the job. For the most part, I wanted to continue working at the school because of opportunities for networking, to gain knowledge, and above all, Ale School of Fine Arts and Design being the only art school in the country for more than 50 years, is full of history and archives of art in Ethiopia. For me, lecturing at the school is gaining knowledge and the experience of the art scene in Ethiopia by working with prominent Ethiopian artists and scholars. All these inform my practice and for that reason, the school helps my studio practice.
In 2011,you were one of the international artists chosen to participate in the Heinrich Boell Stiftung sustainability project, SurVivArt: Arts for the Right to a Good Life, which culminated in an exhibition in Berlin in February 2012. What inspired your project and what was your experience like?
The SurVivArt experience here in Dire Dawa where I was in the residency programme for three months, as well as the exhibition in Berlin, have significance in my practice. It was my first residency programme and group show in Berlin with fellow artists from Asia and Africa. The inspiration came from visiting a local school at the residency. I decided to work with the school children after visiting the school’s pedagogical centre. I felt the luck of an extra-curricular activity for students. The experience, both locally at the residency and the exhibition in Berlin was very enriching; it was an eye opener.
In the same year, you also embarked on the ‘Buy Me a Car’ project where you sought to raise 300,000 Birr (Ethiopian currency) to buy a car. What is the idea behind this project and how challenging is it for an artist to acquire a car in Addis Abeba?
The idea behind the project was to stimulate a one-to-one discussion with the ‘participants’ while requesting for one birr for the car. It is an invitation to a discussion between the random person and I when I ask for money for the car. For a commercially successful artist, it is easy to get a car, but for artists engaged in non-commercial work, it is challenging to acquire one.
Your performance—installation The Girl is Present (2013) focuses on the migration of young Ethiopians from the rural part of the country to the Middle East. Your fellow Ethiopian, Tewedros Teshome Kebede also produced an award-winning movie, Triangle Going to America, on this topic. Why is migration such a big issue in Ethiopia and how would you gauge the success of the exhibition in achieving its objectives?
For decades, young Ethiopians have been migrating to mainly the Middle East, South Africa, Europe and the Americas. I am very happy to see them exercise their freedom of movement. But the major question is where is government protection for citizens who live abroad? Reasons including but not limited to the sexual, physical and psychological harassment of Ethiopians living in the Middle East, and the silence the Ethiopian Government has chosen, made me decide to work on the subject and to create a platform to discuss these matters.
A massive number of Ethiopian domestic workers were deported from a Middle East country not more than two months after the well-attended show, which received reasonable media coverage. I felt like that exhibition was prophetic.
For the exhibition Old News (2014), you worked with recycled paper and commented about the government and the Ethiopian press. Can you tell us more about it?
Old News was more of a protest against censorship. But in playing safe, I produced 40 pages of hand written old news. Ethiopia is one of the top three countries in the world for oppressing freedom of press. Many journalists got expelled from the country, imprisoned, tortured, interrogated and charged under terrorism law. These all happen because they report or blog about what is important at the time. I wanted to reverse and write news, but completely from the past.
Your exhibition AdBar explored your traditional Ethiopian beliefs and practices and was held at Kurant Visningrom,Tromso, Norway and Tiwani Contemporary, London, UK. Please tell us more about this travelling exhibition and where it berths next.
Adbar started as a graduation project for my thesis exhibition in Tromso, Norway. The word ‘Adbar’ is an Amharic term referring to a spirit residing in natural places. The phenomenon has been systematically eradicated from social life, but the performativity and spiritual aspect has continued in many forms. My project research navigates the scope of the phenomena in Ethiopia and portrays the non-physical image of Adbar on my own terms while referencing of the oral narratives related to Adbar places.
Constellated Dots is your next solo exhibition, following closely on the heels of a previous solo earlier in the year. Why so soon after and what new do we expect to see regarding media and techniques?
Constellated Dots is a continuation of my recent painting project, Adbar. As Adbar’s inception was in Tromso, I decided my second show should be in continuation and development. So, I decided not to change medium. Instead, I insisted on producing a new body of works with a similar medium. Constellated Dots is not as large a show as my last solo. I am exhibiting in a gallery space, Small Projects. I used to be part of the gallery for more than one year and a half. So the show will be a reconnect to my family and art environment on the small island of Tromso.
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