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Starting with empty rooms

An exhibition entitled “Empty Rooms” is being shown at Alliance Ethio-Française through March 1.The exhibit organized jointly with the Goethe Institut comprises of more than 30 oil paintings by a Berlin-based Ethiopian artist Engedaget Legesse.
The works have generated a good deal of interest in the artistic community for their fresh, radiant modern style. “Every painting is a new composition of the theme. This is not an expression of simplification but simplicity,” Engedaget says.
The artist has been trying to give form to ideas, thoughts, emotions, and dreams by turning it into brilliantly colored, abstract forms in undefined, empty spaces, suggesting but never fully defining the subject. The “Empty Rooms” do not provide the viewer with special thoughts, the artist said. “They give free space and every thought can be part of it. And even the fainted hint of thought changes the room, filling it with possibility, memories, and dimension,” he explains.
In Engedaget’s works, subtle changes in light and weather conditions are seen; flickering light and shadow are captured; careful calculations are used to avoid emphasizing one area over another. Color compositions stand out brilliantly, distilling simple visual pleasures.
Each painting has such an individual character that the series also seems to chart the artist’s shifting feelings in front of nature. In one of Engedaget’s works, a bright and dazzling sunlight shines in an empty, unfurnished room. Any psychological idea will have to be supplied by the viewer. Puzzlingly and disturbingly, most of the rooms are closed; do not have a way out. Engedaget aimed, he said, to create an art that would lead to ‘ a focused search for self-discovery and the building up of a consciousness in a climate that was marked by conflict’. And the search, he seemed to say, starts from these empty rooms. The subject matter, point of view, light and economy of color are all elements common to many of his works.

Some commented that Engedaget’s latest work does not attain the heights of his earlier work. True, the paintings radically departed from his earlier realistic works that he has been doing when he was in Ethiopia. The artist who is now 39 is the first to admit that his paintings underwent a lot of changes during the last twenty years. After graduating from the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School in 1988, Engedaget has made a name for producing works largely dominated by religious motifs.
That was to change in 1997, when he got a chance to exhibit his works in Berlin, displayed as ‘Engdaget: Spiritual Paintings from Ethiopia.’ His trip to Berlin brought him into contact with a number of contemporary artists and an interaction that proved a strong influence on his subsequent work. There he found life with its many forms and emotions.
A year later, he returned to Berlin – this time for three months – and worked on a further exhibit titled “Engdaget: Impressions of an Ethiopian in Berlin” . Eventually deciding to settle in Berlin with his German wife and two children, his style is to change radically. Now they have become ‘more like my children, “macchiato” a product of black and white’, he says. Yet the painting didn’t become less powerful. As matter of fact, the subject matter became more distinctive, and the compositions more simplified. By reducing objects to pattern of color and shape, the artist began to eliminate direct suggestion in his work. In these works reality seems to dematerialize as he expresses the interplay of color, light, foliage, and reflection in a tangled mass of brushstrokes.
The change in style has brought risk in commercial profit, Engedaget admits. A market always existed for narrative paintings. “I used to sell lots of paintings when I was here,” he says. Not anymore, after all Berlin is a city of 10,000 professional artists. “It is tough to stand out among them,” he says. Yet Engedaget has kept on creating his quiet abstractions. It takes courage to paint the way he does, despite lack of commercial success.

Categories: Arts
  1. Bruck Fikru
    February 26, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    great post, arefe!

    a striking fact about all 34 paintings on display is how they were painted over his old, well known works. i had a chance to talk to him for several hours last week, and he said his two young children are the inspiration behind his attempt to embrace simplicity, to “go back to basics” and attempt to look at life with fresh eyes.

    his style is clearly evolving away from the intense, vibrant and emotional paintings pouring out of the studios of ethiopia’s artists. an art school friend of his dropped in while we were talking, and realizing that the old paintings were now hiding behind the new ones, immediately asked, nostalgically, if it wouldn’t have been easier to put them away, instead of painting over them. engdaget’s reply was revealing: “i suppose i could have burned them as well…”

    when john maeda’s “laws of simplicity” gets translated into amharic, engdaget’s name will appear somewhere in the note from the translator 🙂

  2. March 2, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Great “yemastaweQia sira”, Bruck :-).

    Hopefully, only those who know and recognize the old works visit your buddy’s gallery. If not, erm… well.. I guess he can call it “abstract”. And get away with it too.

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