Mezgebu Tessema: Paying homage to the World of the Ethiopian Peasant


Gulet
oil on canvas



Selet
oil on canvas, 2000



Belge
oil on canvas



Black and White
oil on canvas



Day Dream
oil on canvas



Family (We)
oil on canvas



The Rainy Season
oil on canvas



Semrite
oil on canvas



Silence
oil on canvas



Zefen
oil on canvas, 2000

The success of abstract, abstract expressionist and surrealist art in the 1960s and the sociopolitical conditions of the country created a crisis for major players of realistic art and to those interested in a naturalistic representation. The realistic or naturalistic representation - the techniques of defining pictorial space and the grouping of figures or forms - in the history of Ethiopian art is only a 20th Century preoccupation, which develops with the introduction of photography and a Western style art education. Some artists, whose technique and style had already matured, carried on with minor adjustments in response to abstract art; others attempted a more fundamental revision in terms of modernist principles. They respond in different ways; in most cases they use a rational system of color application similar to that used by western avant-garde artists. Although the artists were not trained how to become abstract painters, as they are taught how to draw the human anatomy, the style and methods of Abstract Expressionists and Surrealists gained the interest of younger artists. They soon developed a tendency to paint in surrealist or expressionist style following their accomplished and successful instructors.

In the late 1970s following the revolution, everything and every constructed system in the country was under fire. Traditional values, political and social practices were condemned as useless and reactionary. The contemporary plastic art was not spared this rage. As a result new form of art, in the shadow of socialism, took its place somewhat slowly for almost two decades. This artistic trend which becomes squarely ideological - flourishes in producing an Ethiopian version of socialist realism art. Following the ouster from power of the military government in 1991, the artists who received their formation both at home and at several major art academies throughout the world in the last half century start producing art works which are very much pluralistic in trend. Once again reflecting Ethiopia's unique artistic sentiment and aesthetic principles. .

One of the major stylistic trends - indicating the reality and complexity of the country - flourishing in Addis these days is an art symbolic in nature and realistic in its approach. One of the most important artists most easily identified with this trend is Mezgebu Tessema. His works are singularly original and unprecedented. His subject matter came from contemporary Ethiopia. It is none other than an imitation of Ethiopian reality or nature - an ideal, and a beautiful copy of nature, as a large section of our contemporary urban society thinks of what art is, its creative nature and beauty. His early works in the late 70s while he was still a student, and later an instructor, in the Addis Ababa school of Fine Arts, were marked by persistent experimentation. He painted and did linoleum engraving of portraits, still-lives as well as several pencil drawings and oil painting of genre pieces that treat scenes of everyday life. His drawings and linoleum engravings were more in search of a topological perspective, on the problem and proportion of the human anatomy. His paintings during this period are noted for their rich, warm tones, such as ocher reds and purples, and the harmonious effect he achieved through his masterful blending of these colors. The effect and contrast of light was so intense that his friends used to refer to the feeling of the heat in his diploma work as Nedad which reflected the sweat of the very dark skinned farmer, the main character at the center of the composition. Despite the romantic and sentimental emphasis inherent in this painting, it exhibited a close attention to detail, which reflects a concern for pictorial realism instilled in him from the beginning. After his initial successes with these themes and his diploma work of communal farmers working, he left for the Soviet Union in 1982 to continue his studies.

His works after 1991 reflect a new trend in Ethiopian contemporary art. Mezgebu has a strong desire for modern life but one of the things that fascinate him is rural Ethiopia and its folks rather than urban Ethiopia. This fascination asserts itself in almost all his works. His visual manifesto becomes to depict the Ethiopian peasants in all his composure, Ethiopians in contemporary situations, and Ethiopians realistically as never before. It is not historical, religious, legendary or heroic in the traditional sense. Subjects were not taken from the Holy Book, from the palace or from the ideal and romantic literature or from a revolutionary rhetoric. It is not even from the activists' concept of the peasants and rural life. Mezgebu depicts realistically and symbolically folks who have seldom been given their due place in the last hundred years artistic culture of the nation, just as they have been denied their place in the political and social decision making of the country for centuries. These are the peasants, so many in number, who gave so much for so many centuries.

It is hard to imagine Ethiopian society without the toiling peasant and his surroundings. It is also evident that the peasant's culture is part and parcel of daily life and norm of Ethiopians. The majority of the officials, government or military, the ministers, authors, musicians, actors etc. came from a family of peasants, or they are an extended family of the peasant. The middle class groups in Addis Ababa and some other cities even though city dwellers still hold dear and are nostalgic for farm and peasant life. Yet, they have lost touch with the peasantry and live in denial of their obligation.

Mezgebu seems to be determined to pay his due all by himself. He is paying homage to the world of Ethiopian peasant through his clear, clean, exhilarating figurative painting. All on his own, without the support or patronage of anybody, even without artistic rivalry, he produced several powerful deeply penetrating images on the life of the peasant - hoping to create links between the disillusioned urban dwellers and the ever "realistic and humanitarian" peasant. . Despite the fact he came at a time when artists were no longer offered commissions, neither from government nor from individuals, he is painting subject matter that might raise the eyebrows of some. In this sense alone, he can be considered as avant-garde. His portable easel paintings are so monumental it is as if the state, the Church, the community or an anonymous patron had commissioned them. They are so large in size that the traditional idea of a small size painting, appropriate for our small rooms and walls, is completely shattered.

When in 1991 he decided to exhibit his tableaus, to his surprise he couldn't find a place to show. The traditionally frequented exhibition halls by young artists, the cultural centers like the Alliance Francaise, the German Cultural Institute, and the Italian Cultural Institute were not ready for the format and content of this kind of painting. The Addis Ababa City Hall Gallery was booked for political meetings and was not ready to accommodate the exhibition. After a very frustrating search for a place to show his works, he finally was given a place at the National Museum in Addis Ababa and had his first one-man show there. He came out with his monumental metaphor of life, which fascinated many of his fans, and would be patrons. Although, detailed and rationally and theatrically composed, they are not subject matter different from what we see daily in a typical Ethiopian countryside. According to him this subject matter reflects his childhood memories, memories of the rugged and harsh plain of his native Enewari in northern Showa. His interest in the rural Showa, with its powerful and enduring experience, and the nearly spiritual encounter between him and the subjects are revealed in his works. The landscape and surroundings in which he creates the deep-rooted encounters and memories allow him to create beauty and to make a far-reaching and meaningful commentary as clearly as any contemporary Ethiopian love songs and Novels. His childhood memories and background are mentioned here not like psychoanalysis of his works but as a clear memory of and nostalgia for childhood. He said: "I think every body has a kind of root, like the plants we have placed where we like to live. We humans since we are mobile and rational, we chose and find our place to live even if it is not where we were born. Yet, that place, where our umbilical cord is buried, is so enchanting we can never be free of it however far from it we are. This is especially true for me as an artist. I have a lot of memories from my childhood, of rural Shoa where I grew up that always inspire me to paint and I want to depict it the way I see and imagine it. Perhaps it is because I consider childhood memories to be non-pretentious and true spirited."

Although it seems hard to associate Mezgebu with a particular artistic movement, his compositional innovations, such as cut-of views and unusual angles, his approaches to plastic problems are quite similar to those used by various contemporary schools of art and art movements worldwide. He is totally at ease with his approach to painting, claiming to be in the forefront in achieving the wishes of the majority of Ethiopian art lovers. Even those of several contemporary Ethiopian painters who have always loved to represent a realist work, however far they are from being realist. Mezgebu's realistic art, sentimental of the peasant world and the peasant conditions is different from any of his predecessors and contemporaries. He seems totally content with his surrounding and life seems to go on as usual for him. . His painting renders the present day Ethiopians devoid of the many tensions - tensions we see in several artists' works in Addis these days. There is no indication of psychological themes, expressed in color, brush stroke or distortion of forms. Explicitly we see no kind of suffering or misery depicted in his characters. If there is any indication, we are rather more inclined to be attracted by his incredible skill and marvelous observation than react to the suffering - since the tableaus are so beautifully composed and painted. But their effects are symbolical - closely tide to cultural and political movement - and what motivated him is moral indignation and the desire to condemn or scorn the present state of Ethiopian society. His desire, at the same time, is to celebrate what he sees and witnesses in rural Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is an agrarian society in which more than four-fifths of the population are engaged in agricultural production. Now, as in the past and for a long time to come, the peasants or the countryside image will remain as the true and the real picture of our very existence. Mezgebu believes wholeheartedly since his childhood, that the peasants are religious, hardworking, and more than anybody - nationalist. Depicting the laboring peasantry and the world of the Ethiopian peasant, the most recognizable home of Ethiopians, without or with some sort of metaphor, Mezgebu is paying homage to the peasant. He is also giving a comforting and unifying symbol for the confused, doubtful and puzzled modern generation Ethiopians.
  Esseye Medhin
2001