Creating religious art
Artist Tekeste Yibeyin is noted chiefly for traditional and religious paintings distinguished by vivid color, decorative sense, and detail in costumes and settings. Talking to him was both a delight and a challenge. He is a man of obvious capacity, an able craftsmanship who is terribly wary lest some treat him as they have been for so long. He could eloquently talk about his trade and his method of working yet he lands himself in impossible situations because he often scrutinizes the world around him with overly stereotypic glasses. He laments the untrustworthiness of his Ferenji patrons who often promise to arrange a show for him in Europe and never shows up. He says he mistrusts local people who claim to be journalists whereas in truth are painters themselves trying to photograph and plagiaries his work. When I first asked him for a brief interview a day after the opening of his exhibitions at Alliance, he told me he had to wait for few days as he had to check and re-check if I was really the person I was claiming to be. When he finally decided to grant me the interview, he had a number of instructions on the photos that I could take. The circumstances of his life and the unpleasant experiences with the media people might have made his life a little bit bitter but there is no denying the fact that he is talented an artist who has produced a considerable number of distinguished paintings. His bright, attention getting murals have decorated church walls in Addis and in northern towns.
His art started in his hometown, the historical Axum where he was born and grew up there. Church and drawing were the things he remembers most about childhood. He says he used to see and observe the actions and craftsmen of church painters and soon started imitating them. He used to go to the inside of the church to make copy of the paintings on the wall. Later, he had served his as apprenticeship as a boy under a master a painter Leke Berhant Hadegu.
In the mid 1960’s, Tekeste was evacuated from Aksum to the capital, Addis. But still the forms, the colors and textures he encountered there remained a strong influence on his work to this day. All of his works are religious in nature—altarpieces or church frescoes.
The overall spirit of religious art is colorful, happy, and, at the same time, devout. He says his portraits are often designated as provincial and vernacular.
By trail and error as much as intuition, Tekeste used washes of paint, texture, collage and bold gestures to achieve the “thrilling harmonies” he desired. He conducted an intense study of the effects perspective and the technical means that painters use to represent these effects.
In Addis, he had regular requests from souvenir merchants to do work that they would sell for tourists. The art has “always been very personal to me,” he said. “I have always just painted for myself, so when they asked me to do this, I had mixed feelings about it. But at the end it was nice to see foreigners and residents enjoying it.”
Tekeste also admits it is very hard to make one’s living in Ethiopia only through art. “You know the market is very conditional. You get something you are exposing. At other times, you have noting. That could be like a year or two.”
Ha has taught traditional arts at the Addis Ababa University Fine Arts Department for four years. He says his students have been appreciative of all the knowledge, techniques, that he has been able to share them but since teaching was consuming much of his time, he had to resign on his own will. Currently, he is working on full time bases at his own studio. He has exhibited his works at Alliance Ethio-Française, Hilton Hotel, the Italian Cultural Institute, the Addis Ababa University, the Greek Club, and Bulgaria Embassy.
He feels that murals in church walls, which would be seen by large numbers of people, are his most important work. Depictions of the Queen of Sheba visit to the court King Solomon in Jerusalem camel-train laden with spices, gold, and jewels, St. Mary’s flight Egypt with Joseph, Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem, Matusala and Abrahm are among the works. In the church murals, he says he tries of pure pigment to create the strongest visual vibration of intense color. He gives special attention to the proper placement f parts of the body and doesn’t subscribe to the widely held theory eyes should be exaggerated in saints’ paintings. “In my work everything is done in accordance with a proportion and including the eye. There is no law that says eyes in church paining should ludicrously be large,” he says.
Commenting about contemporary art, Tekeste protests what he sees as the domination of conceptual art over more traditional art. He thinks most conceptual arts are “pretentious and self-indulgent.”
Tekeste’s exhibition is at display at Alliance Ethio-Française through December 30, 2009.