Kaleab Abate – The In Between
Kaleab Abate’s print works usher us into a complicated space of existence between comfort and distress. The Ethiopian artist who is based in Addis Ababa had his first open studio session in October 2021, after attending a three-month long artist residency under Silhouette Projects, a residency program run by Afriart Gallery in Kampala, Uganda.
At first sight, we are confronted with bold figures in black and grey. These are juxtaposed with bright reds, ochre browns, umbers and siennas for the backgrounds. While the figures’ faces are presented in 3D forms, the bodies and backgrounds are executed as flat impressions, both textured and plain, overlapped intentionally yet in no particular fashion. The textural element in Kaleab’s work serves as a major point of departure into the artist’s conceptual journey.
On closer inspection, one comes to the eventual discovery that much as Kaleab identifies as a print-making artist, the work isn’t just print-making but rather it stretches much further into a seamless blend of print, paint, drawing and collage therefore qualifying as a mixed media. The artist draws and paints faces of young people, the outcome sometimes manifesting as individual portraits and other times, characters converged in groups. He also confirms that these young people are of African-belonging. Furthermore, one can’t help but notice that these faces often project disgruntlement, oftentimes sad and possibly vengeful. Some of the faces stare intimidatingly back at the viewer, others as though seeking pity from their audience. A few, however, seem to be holding onto a glimmer of hope against all odds. The characters’ expressions are not of happy people.
A documentation of modern life and history of young Africans
The printed textures overlapped across what is supposedly the bodies of the people he draws, result in bodies that are reduced to flat, distorted representations, incapable of movement, unable to proceed and therefore incapacitated from achieving any form of progress. The artist utilizes this signature style as a metaphor to portray feelings of enslavement while fronting the notion, that “the system has failed us.” Kaleab’s work is a documentation of modern life and history of young Africans existing amidst a systematically fabricated socio-political and economic crisis. Additionally, newspaper cut-outs depict statements and pictures, many of which front themes expressing a certain level of distress.
Daring words that incite questions about the same crisis being experienced through the eyes of the young people, not only in his homeland Ethiopia but Africa as a continent, are occasionally visible in the art works. Kaleab goes ahead to hint on injustices. The artist’s use of wording as part of his style stands as an outright way of communication through art as it goes a step further, giving the artwork an actual tangible voice amidst the visual rebellion that is clearly going on.
Besides burned stencils, these textures are interestingly achieved using found objects such as a wire mesh, abandoned plastic sack fragments, and even the underside pattern of a sandal. In most recent works, the artist adds threads that dangle off the actual paper or canvas, giving the work an extra dimension.
“I chose light knowing it’s dark,” is a particularly interesting expression attached to one fraction of works that have light bulbs and light switches as recurring features. The artist explains that this expression is a metaphor highlighting the hypocrisy and exploitation surrounding the election of leaders in Ethiopia and many parts of Africa.
My works definitely have a deeper meaing, says Abate. “You will see that many political aspirants often have their posters designed with symbols of hope and capability, for instance a light bulb, in an attempt to communicate their intentions as positive and progressive. Unfortunately, the power given to them is often used for personal gain, at the expense of the common man who is left to continue languishing in “the dark.” In Africa however, this has become a thing of the everyday. With each passing day, we are unconsciously evolving into people that are more expectant and accepting of these kinds of disappointments rather than people that would stand up to them. When visiting government offices for instance, one is already mentally prepared for the possibility of either being ignored or subjected to strenuous bureaucratic processes. Even to the point that it’s surprising when the opposite happens!”
“My work is inspired by what happens in the world around me: for example the skyrocketing youth unemployment crisis which is possibly the result of an inadequate education system. Issues like limited representation of the youth in government positions as a result of systems designed to indirectly suppress younger political aspirants. Government initiatives that are supposedly aimed at empowering the youth being overridden by favoritism and corruption, are all themes in my work .”Kaleab Abate
Discovery of ourselves
Attempts to stand up to these occurrences has resulted in even further injustice and frustration of the common man. At a certain point acceptance becomes easier than resistance. It is from such experiences that the artist brings us, especially the youth living in Africa, to the discovery of ourselves in the, “in-between.” A space of existence between comfort and distress.
To try and classify the artist’s work under either traditional or modern parameters is but a complex pursuit. While the method of execution i.e. printing with ancient lithography style in addition to the use of stencil screens is quite traditional, the approach to media and presentation of concepts is somewhat dynamic, a mix of abstract and figurative art with no specific media thus awarding it the ultimate contemporariness it deserves. The method of execution notably takes us back to basic human figure drawing and handmade stencil printing techniques.
This is no surprise as the artist attended the renowned Ale School of Fine Arts and Design at Addis Ababa University. At this art an institution traditional principles of art are strongly emphasized to the extend that aspiring students of the art course are subjected to a no-laughing-matter drawing entry exam. In an era where the parameters defining what the meaning of a good figurative drawing or painting are being torn down and reconstructed, it wouldn’t be a surprise if people started to question the importance or necessity that is usually assigned to mastering the human figure. A print-making arts major at the school, Kaleab says, “I believe experimental printmaking is the most important subject in the course. It allowed me to combine all the print techniques and present them as one medium.”
While one may eventually observe a conspicuous level of monotony with his style, the artist’s space succeeds at constructing a tense atmosphere in addition to creating room for urgent reflection. However, one can’t help but ask, is a mere display of disgruntlement enough to stir an actual change of events? I’d like to second sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz who says, “Art does not solve problems, but makes us aware of their existence.” This goes on to cement the wider school of thought that states that, “the role of an artist is to document the times.” Society’s role therefore becomes to listen.
The artist looks up to celebrated Ethiopian painter Mezgebu Tessema’s work and affirms him as the inspiration that propelled him to join art school and become an artist. He also credits his practice to his lecturers/mentors Getachew Yosfe and Zerihun Yetimgeta who are also practicing print artists in Addis Ababa.
Coutinho. K. Gloria is a contemporary arts and culture writer based in Kampala, Uganda. She is a first class degree graduate from the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine arts, Makerere University in Kampala. She has taken part in the Writing about African Arts workshop with The African Theatre Magazine (2021) and The Art Writing & Criticism Workshop with Goethe Institute Nigeria and Society for Book and Magazine Editors of Nigeria (2022-2023). She is interested in unravelling the everyday-narratives embedded within contemporary arts and culture in Africa with the goal of fronting stories that matter today.
Gloria Currently works as an administrative and curatorial assistant at Afriart Gallery in Kampala. She blogs at www.visionsofglo.blogspot.com