Past, Present, Future ... The Ethiopian artist Abel Tilahun defies time and highlights the paradoxes of innovation in the exhibition "Odyssey?" that you can discover at the Alliance ethio-française. We met him and Meskerem Assegued, curator of the exhibition, to find out more. Click here to read the interview in French.
Why did you decide to call the exhibition "Odyssey?"
Meskerem Assegued : My understanding of the title, Odyssey with question mark, refers to a long and adventurous journey into the unknown.
Abel Tilahun : The title captures the desire to travel into a distant, unknown place or future in search of wisdom and progress. The exhibition expresses both the optimism and innovation Odyssey embodies, but also problematizes this idea by highlighting tradeoffs inherent within the search for a better future, as well as the repetition of history.
Both of you say “time” is a constant throughout the work. Why this concept is so important in this exhibition?
Meskerem : Time is the moment as well as the continual change and repetitiveness of life. I think the wall installations of Injeras encircled with changing colors of lighted neon tubes are metaphoric representations of the endless circular nature of time in present, past and future. Injera is Ethiopia's staple food but its current fame around the world is changing and challenging its long historic recipe, preparation methods and taste. "School of Thought" is a three-channel video about competition and time. It also links ancient Egyptian animation art to the present.
Abel : As my work investigates relationships between the cutting edge and the long arc of history, I find the use of time-based media a natural fit for my conceptual approach. The single-channel video “Ever-fixed Mark,” for example, is a piece that investigates the essence of life through a span of time and the demise of a civilization. It addresses the ever-lasting essence of love and human connection through time and space. In addition to what Meskerem has stated, I would add that “School of Thought” is about time and the collapse of information hierarchy today, which has been facilitated by the saturation of moving-images in the contemporary era. This has resulted in a thought-process that resembles attention-deficit disorder, in which thoughts are cluttered, and it’s not always clear whether our thoughts are relevant to our reality, or are borrowed from consumed media. For example, an astronaut drifting in space with nothing to stop him is a common fear thanks to cinema, although it is extremely improbable that we would experience this personally.
Video art and sound design are not conventional. What's the power of this way of making art ?
Meskerem : Throughout Ethiopia, the roofs or outside walls of almost every house small or large are covered with different sized satellite dishes. In 2004, when I was a member of the selection committee for the Dak'Art Biennale, most of the selected arts were video installations. I remember being asked by a journalist during a press conference if these selections were appropriate for conventional African art. My answer was that in almost all villages throughout Africa where electricity is available, the first thing a family buys is television. Today, young people in remote villages own smart phones. In this kind of environment video art is an inevitable natural progress.
Abel : Video and sound allow me to create an immersive experience for my audience. I can take them on a journey with highs and lows. The fact that they are going to spend a particular period of time experiencing the piece deepens the engagement. Because audio-visual media is the native language of audiences today, this creates opportunities for artists to create associations and relevance with the audience through the use of this media.
What's the exhibition's goal ? What do you want the visitors to think after the visit ?
Meskerem : I hope this exhibition changes perspective about African Art. Artists in Africa come from different background with varying interests and dreams. They are major contributors of the globalized world. Video art is one of the many medias they can express their ideas. I hope the audience to feel that they have seen a work of art by Abel Tilahun who was born and raised in Addis Ababa as well as spent part of his adult life in Colorado and Washington DC.
Abel : First and foremost, I want my audience to have an engaging and thoughtful experience. After their visit, I want the audience to pay more attention to the paradigm shifts that are occurring in our world, and actively and mindfully participate in them while maintaining a firm grasp to the importance of the past and a compassionate view towards the future.