Girma Berta: An Icon of Africa’s Digital Art Revolution
August 02, 2019
Amidst the bustle and noise of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Girma Berta quietly captures people as they go about their daily lives. Equipped only with his iPhone and lens, he bears witness to the invisible within Ethiopia’s capital city. Social media has provided the ideal platform for documenting Berta’s visual testimonies—along with a built-in audience for his creative imaginings. Instagram was the first place the artist felt comfortable enough to publicly share his photographic experiments and is also where he received his big break. In 2016, Berta was awarded a Getty Images Instagram Award and grant, given to photographers who use Instagram to share stories about underrepresented communities around the globe.
Thanks in part to the grant, Berta went from being an internet sensation to a full-fledged artist, complete with gallery representation. In the same year he won the grant, Berta signed with Addis Fine Art (AFA). The gallery’s emergence signalled a changing tide in Ethiopia’s cultural landscape, with the development of significant works and reaffirmations within their own context. The results are provocative and curatorially sound, and collectors have begun to take notice, especially of Girma Berta’s work.
Before becoming intrigued by the world of photography, Berta had been a graphic designer, which remains evident in the captivating images he shoots. His eye for graphic design enables him to create compelling compositions by situating his figures against bold backdrops, creating unique harmonies.
Berta’s entire creative process, from capture to edit, is completed on his mobile phone and then posted to his strong fan base on Instagram. Having an iPhone as his only tool exemplifies the current digital revolution in Africa.
What makes Berta’s works so captivating is that they are frozen spotlights, technicolour vignettes of the marginalised and elderly, crafted in a self-created style. He says, “The best camera is the one that’s always with you.” The discreet and innocuous nature of his phone allows him to explore his talent even in the face of his culture’s aversion to photography. In Ethiopia, photography is often perceived as being exploitative and only recently began emerging as a popular fine art and advertising medium in the country.
With his work, Berta is spotlighting and giving a face to the unseen and the hidden, as they plod onward for survival. He is able to capture the mundane, highlighting details that would have been overlooked if not for his unique perspective and interpretation.
In Berta’s Moving Shadows series, solitary figures are juxtaposed against vibrant backgrounds, creating truly unique artworks that exemplify the contrasting colours and personalities on the streets of his home town. As Berta presents his solitary subjects, one does not get the sense that they are isolated from the community in which they reside, as they are often moving with purpose or carrying goods that will serve others. Berta says by isolating his figures, it becomes just about them, without any distractions.
The artist refuses to romanticise his subjects, and presents them without commentary. The use of space and the skewed placement of the figures at the corners of the image create compositional harmonies that capture the viewer’s attention. Rather than idealising his subjects, Berta’s work focuses on the notion of documentation. The people in his work are either children playing around or adults holding mundane items (such as baskets) or pushing wagons, while dressed in traditional wear. The photos are thus unsentimental, showing the actual reality of life in Berta’s community.
His work has been featured in major publications, including The Guardian, Design, The Huffington Post, and Art Africa Magazine. Berta was selected to participate in the New York Times Portfolio Review 2017 and shortlisted as a finalist for the 2017 CAP Prize. He has also featured in several exhibitions around the world, including at La Gacilly Photo Festival (2017), Cape Town Art Fair (2017), PhotoVille NY (2015 and 2016), Look Festival (2016), 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair London (2016), Also Known As Africa Art Fair Paris (2016), and Bamako Photo Festival (2015).
Girma Berta represents the new form of African art, as opposed to mass-produced, tourist shop designs. By using digital media intertwined with traditional photography, he is able to create art that is a physical representation of the digital revolution sweeping across Africa. His work epitomises the creativity of the millennial African. Berta’s interpretations of the city’s residents are not just visually striking but also create dialogue about a country that is little known to many, making Berta a visual storyteller above his peers.
Changed for clarity. OK? It wasn’t quite clear what “reframe gazes” meant.
Oyindamola Olaniyan is the Head of Media and Communications at Revilo Publishing. She holds a B.sc in Botany from Lagos State University. Broadly experienced in this area, her core expertise includes social media management, content development and brand identity.
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