Harshness of gentrification
Addis Ababa is currently going through a gentrification process which has affected Helen very intimately. She received a letter from the government that she was obliged to move her mother’s grave because the graveyard was being relocated due to urban planning. In other words, she had to dig up her mother’s bones. In order to deal with this harsh reality she decided to address it as an artwork.
Helen: “It shows how rough this gentrification process is and the price that you pay as an inhabitant of the city. I’ve tried to use it as a healing process. I’ve documented the whole process as a personal journey and created an installation which also included a performance. My emotions and feelings were guiding me through the process. It’s about my interaction with the soil, bones and with the memory of my mother.”
Helen deals with the process of time, memory and entropy and tries to make a connection with the deceased. In her performance she moves around in her mother’s grave, wrapped up in linen like a mummy. Firstly, she dances around the grave that is surrounded by red umbrellas. Helen: “The red umbrella is how I remember my mother. She always carried a red umbrella to protect her against the sun.” Then she lies down in the grave and moves around, tossing and turning and digs up potatoes that represent her mother’s bones. Helen: “When I talked to the grave diggers, they explained to me that they perceive the bones as potatoes, not like human remains anymore, because they are so used to digging them up.”
For Helen Zeru being an artist means expressing contemporary social issues through her own intimate experiences: “I feel like I have to take responsibility for what I say and do. I am part of the system in society but I try to find distance to reflect on society and see it from a different perspective.” Through personal experiences she relates to issues such as the process of gentrification in cities, displacement and being uprooted.
Healing in Berlin
Helen continued the performance on the memory of her mother when she went to Berlin and this time she walked through the city in the same linen mummy outfit carrying a red umbrella. “If I had walked through the streets dressed like this in Addis I would have been arrested for sure…but it was interesting to do it in Berlin because people didn’t know who I was and where I was from. It was a continuation of my healing process because mourning is never easy.”
Decomposition through time
Helen also continued this theme of loss when she was an artist-in-residence in Vienna. Some parts of Vienna are also undergoing major transformations as a result of gentrification. Old buildings full of old stories are being demolished and new constructions are taking their place. “I went around and documented the places before and during the process of demolishing.” She used picture frames similar to the one on her mother’s grave. “Through weather and time the picture on my mother’s tombstone began to fade, as did my memories of her. I used the picture frame from the grave in the installations.”
She developed the pictures she took of the old neighbourhood, put them in picture frames and hung them back in the neighbourhood as it underwent change: in trees, on the top of buildings or even in the ground. “They will undergo a change as well, so I’d like to go and find them again after a couple of years and see the possible disintegration.”
Displacement raises questions such as: what does a home mean? What will you take with you when you leave and what do you leave behind? It shows people’s relationship and attachment to their values and to the past. As an artist-in-residence in Kampala, Helen continued working on this theme of displacement and interviewed Eritrean refugees in the refugee camps.
As part of a performance piece she moved a tree from the countryside in Uganda to the capital Kampala as a metaphor for what happens to refugees. She wanted to find out if the roots would take root again, because the soil might be different. “If somebody has lived their whole life in one place and you move them, what will happen? Will they be uprooted forever or will they find their way back into the soil again, even though the soil might be of a different composition?” This dilemma of being uprooted applies just as much to old people during the process of gentrification when they are moved out of their homes and into new condominiums.
In Helen’s piece on replanting a tree, she chose to replant it in a park in Kampala and for four weeks she went to the Kampala City Council every single day to get a letter of approval, but she never succeeded. This is another metaphor of the difficult process the refugees are going through, trying to get their papers approved by the City Council.
During the performance she also dragged a sack around with the logo of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) on it and wrote emotive words from her interviews with refugees – who wanted to remain anonymous – on her face. “The UNHCR logo is everywhere and you can find the bags all over the place, they are reused for houses, charcoal bags, etc. and… the refugees are also being dragged around. I wrote their touching words on my face like death, fear, sickness during the performance.”
Breaking through isolation
Travelling is important for Helen: “I can think more clearly and reflect on my own life and society by being abroad and thus compare other places to Addis Ababa. In Europe for example there is a lot of access to a lot of things, where there are so many restrictions in Ethiopia. We seem so isolated from the rest of the word. I mean it’s not only Ethiopia, the whole structure is difficult within the African continent: travelling between African countries, but also social, economic and political connections. So what I really like about Europe is the easiness of everyday life.”
In order to break through this isolation, Helen wants to organise art festivals in East Africa with exchanges between artists, preferably female (performance) artists, in order for them to learn from each other and know what’s going on in the rest of the continent. “Luckily there is already a good start at the art academy in Addis Ababa with a new young director, Berhanu Ashagrie Deribew, who has a very international approach and did his own Masters in the Netherlands, so he is totally into conceptual thinking. He organises guest lectures and workshops with international lecturers and artists, which is great for opening up the art worlds in Addis!”
Just as Helen Zeru translates her own intimate experiences into art works with a strong relation to contemporary social issues, she is also very eager to share the positive impact of her travels and support exchanges to help open up the East African art scene.