Merid’s charcoal drawings
Ethiopian artist Merid Tafesse paints images of genuine topicality in an immaculate caricature style. An exhibition entitled, “DON’T ASK ME WHY” at the private Lela Art Gallery in Addis Ababa presents the artist’s 36 works, most of them done in charcoal with cartoonish manner, a style that have become the artist’s signature works. Human figures, portraits and clowns dominate the works and are put on the papers by a casual application of drawing. Merid’s charcoal looks like an up-close black and white photograph and he is so fine with the brush that he could complete his creations with just one stroke. His shapes appear to form a segment of a much larger implied image that continues to either side or beyond the actual paper.
Merid said that the works reflect his development as an artist starting from his school days at an art school. “There are works that I have done as recently as last month and others which I made just after graduating from school and started using charcoal, “the artist explains.
Asked how he chooses his theme and subjects, Merid says, “When it comes to starting the drawing, I do not draw or plan the composition. I am open wherever I go. I just open myself and see. I might start with lines. It could be something that touched me on that day. What I saw on the TV, what is going on in the world, the Arab spring or something like that. Sometimes a burning idea just pops into my head. Usually after I work on something, I will see themes. The puzzle keeps me asking questions and that seems to make the work evolve.” One portrait of a man, entitled “The Hypocrite,” shows a clown who seems to be sad but laughing inside. The artist said it was a work inspired after a particular incident in South Africa four years ago. “There were attacks on foreigners, anybody working in South Africa was attacked, because the people think the foreigners have come to take their job. One afternoon there was a person, a guy, who followed me and talked to me. He said, ‘I see the way you walk- you are not from South Africa.’ I told him that, ‘I am Ethiopian,’ and passed him by. He said that he was sorry that there was attack on the foreign community but as he was saying that, there was smile on his face, a satisfied smile. So I am inspired by him, and make a guy with a suit- a clown who looks like he’s crying, but he’s laughing inside.”
Merid specialized in painting at Addis Ababa University Fine Arts School but he soon abandoned it entirely to make experiment with charcoal. His first one-person show was in 1999 in Jerusalem followed by several exhibitions in Addis Ababa, Paris and Cape Town, to name a few cities. His work was also featured in a group exhibition to 20 African countries and the region. It takes courage to abandon a lucrative career as a popular painter in order to follow your instincts and make rigorous abstractions. Merid hasn’t much enjoyed commercial success. “I diverted from traditional methods into a more conceptual, collective, less market-driven practices. I started to value simplicity over complexity. I am convinced that art making was essentially a form of behavior. If you do colorful and cultural stuff, you could sell. But I’ve decided to experiment with charcoal. The color is black which has a negative connotation. Blackness is associated with darkness. In fact, someone black or brown is someone who is exposed to the sun. If we don’t get enough sun, our color becomes pale. To be black is to be in the light, “he explained.
A work ‘Taking sand to the sea’ with heavily patterned based, yet more vibrant, color palette captivated the attention of art lovers. The artist said the work has already been exhibited at the National Museum. “You don’t normally take sand to the sea. You rather bring sand from the sea. You don’t take salt to Dalol. But that is the kind of situation we are. We have everything. We have oil seed. But it is taken from here and manufactured in a factory abroad and sent back to us. That is what I tried to show.”
Talking about artists that have influenced his career, Merid said he counts Tadesse Gizaw as his influence. “He was one of the most extraordinary teachers anyone would be lucky enough to have; a lot of my draw was to him. He was not only a painter but also industrial designer. He was a craftsmanship and an inventor. He invented the Amharic typewriter. He fabricated his own machine gun. He did a steam car. He was my teacher when I was first year at art school,“he explained.
Explaining why he is using mostly charcoals, Merid says the spontaneous nature of the medium often command immediate decisions at times. “This gives movement to the subject matter and allows me to bring to the viewer snippets of time that represent intimate aspects of the human condition,” he explains.
The fine strokes and simplicity in the subjects added more zeal to his creations.This exhibition is a continuum of creativity and it is a thing of simplicity, humility, and self-knowledge.