Her Voice recap

The September Seminar featured a short film highlighting seven female Ethiopian Artists. Elizabeth Habtewold, a seasoned artist and producer of the video, gave an opening introduction accentuating the rare privilege of developing documentation in which artists describe their relationship with their work. This video, Her Voice, being such a record marks a step towards the conception of a digital archive in Ethiopian Art History. Habtewold listed a plethora of questions an artwork raises when put on display and the reformation process these inquisitions acquire in the presence of the Artist.

Once the screening was complete the platform was opened for discussion. The first question raised from the audience was directed to all artists in the panel asking them to elaborate the challenges they face as women artists living in a patriarchal society. It is important to analyze the spirit of this question, the effect of which lasted through the length of this seminar. Starting this analysis with the phrase “her voice” as a title for a video featuring the works of visual artists begins to clarify the irony as a necessity for a metaphorical representation of expressions in repressed groups within gender hegemony. The irony being explained here is the discrepancy in the medium of communication: while her voice implies a sound medium, the works featured are visual in nature. Nonetheless in further contemplation of this anomaly we find that the title is most fitting and appropriate for the featured video.

John Berger in his four parts documentary series, Ways of Seeing, describes the cultural eye through which the woman body is seen in European paintings during the Renaissance. The context of his analysis are far removed from our surrounding, Ethiopia in the 21st century. Nonetheless, from his investigation we can extract points that pertain to our discussion. His opening phrase “Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.” is such example that relates to the passive positioning of women in our society. The docility of women’s representation begins with how the woman sees herself. “A woman’s body is a sight,” Berger continues, “to be seen and admired.” Of course, Berger is not providing conclusive statements regarding the woman form, rather offering an observation based on considerable research. His observation, a woman as a painting, proves valuable to the discussion of seven women artists two of which use the woman’s figure as a recurring motif in their works.

Million Berhane makes collages that investigate her interest in color psychology. She chooses whimsical themes that showcase brilliantly her interest in the vibrant without imposing color into the canvas. The two works she talked about in the video are laundry day in condominium apartments and a dress made out of Biden collages celebrating the Ethiopian New Years, which also coincides with her birthday. The lines of clothing depicted in the first body of work entirely cover the residents’ balconies, confronting the viewer with a fabric façade. Berhane’s choice of portraying clothing as a kind of identity and time marker gives space for multiple interpretations rendering her artwork alive in different discussion panels.

Merikokeb Berhanu’s use of heavy motifs calls for an intimate reading of her paintings. She explains that her work deals with the nuances of life, nostalgia, and death and she explores what it means to have the freedom to give. Elizabeth Cheru is an environmental artist working on making available mobile restrooms for women. She recycles plastic materials to build and decorate her booths. She has a project installed at Jan Meda, providing WC services for 3000 athletes. Konjit’s artistic practice involves a combination of craft and culture laden with conceptual framework. The video features a cacophonic curation of communal onion chopping. The artist explores the performer’s unique rhythmic thrust of the blade through the bulb unto the chopping board and listens to the sound of this gesture as it weaves a tune to the
performer’s identity. Onion chopping performed as a ritual voices the composition of bodies coexisting in a shared space. And the listener continually slips between a desperate scouring for a single melody of an individual and a longing to hear and recognize the harmony of the whole.

Nebiat Abebe produces works endowed with the concept of passing time underlining marks of struggle in light of liberation. In her investigation of the duality between swimming and floating she utilizes color’s ability to express emotions. What I want to observe in myself within the context of my art, says Nebiyat, is my agency as a giver. But I continually observe my artworks giving back to me. Mihret Dawit’s clay works received the most response at the seminar.

The tactile nature of her medium and her playful personality engaged the audience into discussion. The predisposition of clay to break feeds her subject matter, which analyzes the many possibilities and layering of shapes. The segment of the video featuring Genet Alemu started with shots of intimate notebook pages. As the interview continues we observe these pages in the background growing in size. In her etchings, Genet explores the texture of lines with time as a predetermining factor. The trajectory of these lines is also explored in her paintings that mimic the route of restless emotions. In her spiral works she meditates the loss of her little sister by denting circles with elusive beginning and end.

The coy silence given in response to the question regarding the challenges of female Ethiopian artists, most notably pronounced the heft of unaddressed trials among role models that underrate their achievements. For the artist that can’t live without creating, which all of the artists present communicated in their short statements, gender issues did not come as a factor under consideration. Nonetheless, the inability to recount and articulate one’s position in relation to the surrounding is an aftermath of a self-image constructed by the Other. Objectification strips the subject of a perspective to analyze itself as a source of insight, and overrides its vision that sees its ability to affect. It remains continually occupied in the modeling and remodeling of itself for appearances to fit a ruling narrative. In the case of artists – their work considered as an extension of their body – in their silence we could read a kind of directive shifting our focus from their corporeal body towards their artworks. Having already found a medium to express their thoughts we hear their voice reverberating through their paintings, installations, performances, prints, poems and sculptures.

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