I have had a chance to see her solo and group exhibitions a couple of times. Her works are memorable and evocative, with a sense of color and the subjects who are mostly tall, skinny and decorated women. You could see that she was an artist with an eye for beauty.
It was a great pleasure to get the chance to talk to the artist whose works I have come to like and admire. After one phone conversation, I met Martha Mengistu last Friday at her studio in her family’s compound around Eyerusalem Hotel, west of Addis. She is a pleasant person to talk to and there is a clear straightforwardness about her personality.
As the interview revealed, Martha was born in 1979 in Gullele area of Addis. From as far as she could remember, she loved painting. She always wanted to be an artist.
At primary school, she used to draw almost daily. She filled the pages of her exercise books with drawings and illustrations.
Martha didn’t like school very much and she wasn’t really interested in the long hours of attendance. The only bearable aspect of school was the hour of a day devoted to drawing, Martha recalls. She could think of little else but drawing.
Where did that interest come from?
“I don’t know. It is kind of odd. Because, I’ve never seen a painter before. Nor have I seen any paintings. The only thing that I remember was that my sister took me to an exhibition around Amiest Kilo while I was seven or eight. That was all,” she says.
She did her high school at Medhani Alem Secondary school. Classroom lesson wasn’t fun either but there was teacher who was teaching arts to a couple of students on private bases. She enjoyed peering through the window of the art class but she didn’t know the requirements to join the class. She was too shy to ask.
Despite not liking school, Martha managed to finish high school. The appeal of drawing was too strong and she got the courage to take formal lesson with the art teacher at Medhani Alem School. Marta credits that teacher with helping her to get started on the road to painting.
“It was him who gave me all the know-how and techniques of painting. He encouraged me to keep trying and to be creative. I could say he has been the most important influences on my artistic works,” she says.
It was after that she decided to join the Addis Ababa University, School of Fine Arts.
The first time around she has been denied admittance.
“The exam was hard. Not more than 20 students were accepted each year. But the chance gave me to know how the test was like,” Martha recalls.
In the second attempt, at age of 20, she brilliantly passed her entrance examinations and was accepted as student at Art School. She was one of the three girls admitted in that batch. She immersed herself in different artistic methods, styles, and theories and later specialized in mural arts.
“Ok, it was helpful but you do most things before you join the art school. Most of those who joined were able painters who have had training in other places before,’ says Martha.
Four years later she received her degree from the Addis Ababa University, School of Fine Arts in 2001.As partial requirement for their graduation, the batch has organized an exhibition at the Arts School. Many of her friends and teachers made suggestions and nodded their approval. Not later than a week after graduation, the batch had organized an exhibition at an acquaintance’s house. The house belonged to a certain expatriate and the exhibition stayed for fifteen days.” It was nice to see visitors smiling and looking at the art work and really enjoying it.”
With the acceptance of her first exhibition, which came as a surprise to her, she immediately set work on her next projects.
In 2002, she participated in a group exhibition at Hager Fiker Theatre where she and her friends has a large number of audiences. One person among the audiences was a curator the Alliance Ethio-Francaise. He liked her works so much that he invited her for an exhibition at Alliance, which she did months later with her a couple of friends. The exhibition was titled as “Woman’s Touch” and there was a lot of enthusiastic response. She demonstrates her ability to catch each woman in a characteristic pose, thus giving the group an air of informality and naturalness; each individual is clearly portrayed, yet all are linked in a well-balanced pattern in line and color.
People liked the works. They sold well. Everyone, it seemed wanted to see her, hear her. Newspaper and magazine writers called her for interviews.
The then director of the Alliance, Lucian asked her to present a solo exhibition. After four months, she did around 30 or 35 works. She presented the works in a solo exhibition entitled “Beauty. It was a huge success.
In the same year, she sent her works to be exhibited at Hamburg University in Germany and in 2004 she has had ten minutes television program coverage from Finland Cultural News Station.
Another of her major solo exhibitions was “daily life” that she held at Alliance Ethio- Francaise in Addis Ababa. Her paintings depicted women in their daily life. “I always try to represent beauty, internal or external, as I see and feel it. This is I think, what gives to my canvass and their subjects, their unique and attractive characteristics: this is what defines my style,” she says. She participated in an exhibition during the 2006 edition of the International Women’s day with works that portray the daily activities of women as their contribution to political and social-cultural development.
Her works exhibits her multifarious gifts: her patience, her draftsmanship, her minute attention to detail. They go beyond a simple likeness to capture the story of their life written in their faces, their postures, and their gaze.
In this painting, the richness of creation is symbolized by the slender women and the verdant landscape against which they pose. Luxuriant color, glowing light and shade, sensuous brushwork, and an elegant composition all serve to further the beauty of the paintings.
Martha’s works have been displayed in galleries and public spaces, as well as postcards. . One of her favorites works Adey Abeba (Meskel Daisies) is hang on the wall of Irish Embassy’s meeting room. The Embassy owns five of her other works. Another of works, “The New Year” has been featured in the Ethiopian Airline’s New Year card.At the exhibition organized by the COESA in Kusaka, Martha was recognized as the best feminine painter of Ethiopia.
The talented Martha keeps on paintings from absorbed and remembered things as well as from sketches all with reason and purpose.