Art, Deliberations and Dreams: An Interview with Abraham Hailemichael
The Eritrean painter, Abraham Hailemichael, recently held an exhibition titled “Deliberating with the Innermost Dreams” at the Casa delgi Italiani in Asmara between the 18th and the 23rd of November 2011. Prolific and inventive, Abraham has held several solo and group exhibitions since 1997 in Eritrea and Abroad. This exhibition presented 45 pieces including paintings, 3D mixed media and sculptures. Following is an interview with Abraham Hailemichael on his latest show.
Conceptually, what was the starting point for this exhibition?
The idea for this series originated from my day-to-day observation of my surroundings. I came to be conscious of the fact that we are always wrapped around something: in our clothes, in our houses, in our neighborhood, in our culture and in our dreams. So I became interested in the different layers that wrap the objects of our daily life as well as the layers that dwell within us. In my working process, I try to balance observation and feelings.
What took you from that initial observation to actually creating a series of paintings with that idea in mind?
As an artist, I think that feelings begin with your surroundings and it is important to be conscious of who you are in relation to where you are. I first looked at how people, including myself, and objects around me were wrapped by their surrounding. I was inspired to depict the spirit of what is inward and what is outward as well as the relationship between them. I was also very much interested in experimenting with different media and playing with multi dimensional perspectives.
By choosing this idea, what did you mean to say?
When this idea came to me, I realized that it could be developed further and further into a series that I found very inspiring. It is a wide concept that encompasses many things, but you have to focus and choose something. I chose to observe my day to day experience beginning with what is closest to me and to push the exploration further into wider circles: myself, my friends, my family, the neighborhood, and the society at large. Most often, when you look at things around you, you notice that something is there through another thing, like water is contained in the clouds. Life by itself is a cycle, permanently in rotation: through birth, one becomes two, mother and child. In light there is darkness and vice versa, one exists in relation to the other and one can’t exist without the other.
Why did you choose this title for your exhibition?
To me Deliberation is communication with your inner dreams; Innermost is the deep self; and Dreams, because life is the source of dreams: My paintings are the outcome of these three elements. I used cylindrical forms, wrapped forms to represent depth, to signify going into another world (dreams.) I like to go within (innermost) beyond the shadow into the light (deliberation.)
How did you materialize this in visual terms?
There are many levels where this can be expressed. For example, if you look at objects around you, you will see that they are often surrounded by shadows. Shadows for me are a kind of wrapping, an envelope that exists in relation to light. Another example is figures wrapped in their clothes, which I most often represent in abstract ways. They can also be wrapped by other people or by colors representing feelings and emotions, and you will see also that they can be wrapped by their own situations and dreams. In “Separated Lovers with Yolk” there are two lovers and a separate figure holding an egg yolk. The figures are represented in articulated, cylindrical forms with only one of them holding both the key and the lock.
Another example is “The Dreamer and the Vertical Stranger” where the same unifying layer allows the figures to live in the same world. For me, when you look at something in particular and you focus on it, then it becomes vertical. So I look at objects not only in terms of their positioning in space but also in terms of focus and attention. In fact, with the notion of verticality I associate the notion of focus, spirituality, and communication. With the concept of horizontality, I associate the notions of sleep, dream and death. In “The Rain in Between the Image” which is a three dimensional piece in mixed media, there are clouds at the horizontal level and a figure lying parallel to the ground, whereas an almost transparent layer of rain drops forms a vertical plane.
There is also the symbolic use of colors as in “The Lonely Man in Yellow.” A man is in the yellow, surrounded by dark blue-purple, and outside of that space is a female figure. The yellow is wrapped by dark colors. For me yellow is a hard color representing space, depth and dimension whereas blue is closed: The shadow is in blue, the light is in yellow. In this piece, the opposition of colors allows me to express the situation between the two figures.
So there are several layers of interpretation, as with colors, but how about the titles you use?
Titles can be there or not. You can keep all your work untitled but using titles is like opening a door for the viewer. In “The Late Comers”, you see figures rushing because they are late to their invitation. Titles can be descriptive of the painting in the way that the artist sees it, but for the audience it may not always be the case. For example, there is a painting titled “Untitled Thought.” Can we say that this is really descriptive?
So were you able to develop many different forms around this idea?
Yes, but there are sometimes problems with words when you want to define visual elements: I say to wrap, wrapping, but my intention is not to confine the object; instead, I prefer to create forms, which focus something and recreate the atmosphere of a particular situation. Paintings in a series may seem similar at first sight, but at a closer look they are not. In “Self Portrait with the Open Gate”, the figure is wrapped in a way that has some similarities with the other paintings and the difference is in the details. In the sculptures, the forms are both wrapped and opened: they are forms that invite you in. “The Waitress no-1” invites you inside; that figure then wraps the man. “The Waitress no-2” has a portrait inside and she serves the figure invited to come in.
How were you able to achieve such consistency in the end?
It may not be deliberate at the beginning but with experience, you realize that working through a theme gives you an impression of harmony. In fact, I felt I was working differently with each piece, but progressively I sensed a certain consistency and then I began to work purposely in that direction. The main purpose though is not finding consistency for its own sake, but working for the sake of your own internal world. A thematic becomes a means to express your vision and your inner world. In a series, you obtain different versions of the same painting: it is as if a painting was multiplying. For me, as a painter, coherence means that you can make a full sentence with a painting posing as a word.
How can you define this notion of wrapping; and does it not come from the Eritrean national dress Netsela?
To me, the notion of wrapping is associated with layers and depth. Wrapping is only a word, it is what I use to define what I would like to represent. Words are words. In one painting, the rain is wrapped by the other elements. In other paintings, it is Netesla that is the wrapper or the layer. Even in the sculptures you can see Ediat (decorative embroideries on Eritrean national dress). Of course, the day-to-day elements that you see around you can become art elements. Even if Netsela is a symbolic cultural item in Eritrean life, the artist may see in it both a functional element and a symbol representing society at large. But most often, the artist leaves functionality behind and appropriates the element of beauty in the object.
How does an artist look at his own culture?
Directly or indirectly you are prone to reflect your own culture, simply because that’s what’s around you, what surrounds you, and that is what led me to the concept I have developed for this exhibition. Art comes from exposure to daily life and the attention you give to your own deliberations, reflections, feelings and dreams. That’s why I said earlier that your surrounding is you primary source of inspiration. That’s what influences you in the immediate. In some pieces, I use the Eritrean Netsela or Kuta; it is a representation, most often abstracted, of how I see people in Tigrinya tradition. Sometimes I use only the embroideries as a decorative element, both in reference to our culture and as an art object. There are also other elements that refer to our culture or traditional way of life like in “The Will for the Wheel” where the figure is fetching water from a well and caries a jug made of clay on her back.
Following your exhibition there was a criticism session organized by your peers, as it has become a tradition in the art circle in Asmara. What do you think of this practice?
I think it is a good thing. You get to learn from each other. You present your ideas and others may criticize your work. It does not mean that it will change your mind, but all the criticism on technical aspects will help you to grow. The professional artists who were there expressed various opinions and I was pleased that many encouraged me to continue in the direction I have taken with this exhibition.
What advice would you like to give young Eritrean artists?
I don’t like to give advice because I think that everyone should follow his or her own path. I also think that no teacher is as good as the potential that dwells within each student. Yet, young artists have many resources these days to learn art and using the Internet is one way they can explore the world of art. If they really want to learn, they should also meet professional artists. In any case, it is important to begin young because that is the best time to learn the skills and learn how to develop ideas.
What about using Internet and art websites?
I think it is a very good thing and already a few Eritrean artists have opened their own website to show their work. It is a way to get exposure, a good way to communicate with viewers and other artists; furthermore, it creates a completely new realm of opportunities. My website is at: www.abrahamawalom.com
Finally, what did you learn from this exhibition and what would you like to say in conclusion?
From my experiences, I have learned that you have to respect your ideas, your feelings and your dreams. You should let the viewers come to you and not go to them. I have already ideas for my next series of work and I know already that I will explore further this notion as “wrap-ism” if I may say so!