Living in the present
Ephrem Solomon is an artist who makes engravings and woodcuts on plywood. “People don’t appreciate my work in Addis Ababa, they like acrylic paint on canvas and figurative images; otherwise they don’t consider it to be art.” That’s the reason he prefers to exhibit his work abroad. “The outside world is more understanding.”
Ephrem finds it unfortunate that Ethiopians don’t understand contemporary art, since this visual language is an internationally-recognised way to express the modern human condition. According to him the role of an artist is to document the zeitgeist, and for him this means doing research, experimenting, creating concepts and being original; being a man of his time.
“The problem I’ve seen in African countries is that people start copying art once they see it has a commercial value. This also happens with my work, but I don’t care. It’s my concept and philosophy. I do wonder why contemporary African art is such a hype nowadays, no one has heard of the older generation of Ethiopian artists.” Ephrem considers himself as a global artist who is able to express his feelings wherever he is.
Here and now
He is currently working on a series of portraits with the title ‘Forbidden Fruits’. “Nowadays I make faces; sad and neutral faces, distorted faces, because in the real world there is no perfection either. Some of the faces are of people that I have observed, others are from my imagination. What all portraits have in common is that the faces are pictured at the centre; for me this means that each person lives in the present.”
One of Ephrem’s favourite places to observe is around the stadium in Addis Ababa where he makes sketches of people’s different facial expressions. It’s a place where people gather, laugh, talk and play games. It’s almost like a gambling hall where people speak freely and live their lives in the here and now. Ephrem: “I love the idea that life is NOW! Not yesterday, tomorrow or in the future… life is today, in the present.” Whilst he depicts both the rich and the poor he feels the poor have more depth of experience and live a more truthful life than the rich.
Black and white
According to Ephrem life is black and white: “Day and night, sad and happy, win and lose; it’s the same. I can see colors in the world, but at the same time it’s all black and white. That’s how I feel. I also use organic forms, because life is also full of repetitions.” Ephrem explains: “Certain things happen to me everywhere, in Croatia, Dar es Salaam, London, Nairobi or Dubai… immigration officials ask me difficult questions and question my papers. Life is full of repetitions. Life is like a game, black and white, it repeats itself over and over again … it’s like a circle, eternity.”
Ephrem considers technology also as repetition. When he went to Dubai, he saw barcodes and QR codes everywhere. “Even the key to my hotel room was a plastic card with a code. I started to wonder why there are codes on every single object. In Africa many people don’t know what codes mean. People don’t know what’s going on”. It inspired him to create the triptych ‘Africa for Africa’, with a lot of repetition in form and words and QR codes in the corners. He addresses the identity of Africans and Africa as a continent. What do people want to relate to in local, national and international contexts? What is the identity of Africa as a continent? What is the role of the population and their leaders in society? These are all questions that inform and inspire his artistic work.
Ephrem also loves the Mercato, a huge market in Addis Ababa, and visits it on a daily basis to look for materials such as papers, old magazines, hardboard and photos which he experiments with. He explains: “My life and philosophy is about research and experiment: I love to experiment with new techniques, materials and themes.” That’s why Ephrem works with plywood, because he doesn’t want to limit himself to canvas and acrylic paint. He paints the plywood black with house paint, after which he sketches with chalk. He prefers to work directly on the plywood instead of creating a full image in a sketchbook and then copy it to the ‘real work’. “The concept, research and how to get ideas out of my mind, in other words, to express what I feel, that’s the most difficult part of making art. The work itself is easy. I don´t want to over-complicate my feelings or to make my work too complex. It needs to be simple, because people are already surrounded by so many images.”
Artistic freedom is important to Ephrem as can be seen in the work ‘Birds of Freedom’. The work is a self-portrait with a chessboard pattern as a background, covered with birds drawn as repetitive organic forms spreading their wings. “I used to do a lot of black and white works, but now I use more colour. I became inspired in Tanzania and Zanzibar where I did an artist-in-residence programme last summer. The women wear such colourful kangas (wrap skirts) and the place also represents freedom to me, because no one was limiting my way of thinking.”