“I come from a very religious family and I went from being very conservative to someone who is questioning everything in life, maybe extreme but realistic.”
Henok Getachew works as a visual artist who uses different media in order to express his ideas. He paints, creates videos, installations and performances. Mostly he experiments and works spontaneously but he always aims to confront people with their perceptions about what is normal and provoke them to think again. Daily life provides him with a rich source of inspiration.
As a teenager, Henok questioned the concept of religion and realized that he should understand science instead. He felt liberated from deeply engrained fears once he understood life is not about punishment and praying but about physics and physical existence. “I even studied physics before I started with the art academy. I like to focus on time and space as a topic and how they come together, but also on contrasts and experiments. I want to exercise complete freedom of thought without any boundaries. Physics helped me to see the world in a different way. ”
He also literally liberated himself from canvas in a performance called ‘Embryo Enlightened’. He was inside the canvas in different poses and finally escaped by bursting through it. He didn’t want to limit himself to one dimension but to work with time and movement in space instead, so the way forward was to become a performer. At the same time his work is about expressing the limitations of his earlier, conservative life and the decision to cast off these bonds and experience the world as it is, without restriction.
His ultimate goal is to find meaning in his existence and to appreciate his own life and that of all living things around him. He strives to attain this sense of inner peace through his art practice. “Art is an enlightened practice for me, it’s almost holy. I also want to show it to others. I want to be a saviour; I guess I have that mentality.”
Change and challenge
Henok is inspired by his direct surroundings. In his painted ‘Condo-minimization series’ he addresses, as do other artists in Addis Ababa, the current change that the city is going through; the process of gentrification. He shows it without being judgmental. “It’s just another way of living, the old settlements compared to the new condominiums. I just want to show reality: the way it is. I see it as a challenge: in order to get something new, you have to lose something… or something should decay in order for something else to grow. It’s also a challenge for the older generation to use such modern housing. They don’t know what to do with a bathroom inside their new house! Some people turn it into a small room with a different purpose, because they have never had an inside bathroom or toilet before.” He is fascinated by this contrast between traditional and modern lifestyles.
Walking a donkey
One of his performances is with a donkey that he calls ‘Donkey-lobalization’. One of them is a street performance in which he walks through the city with a donkey that is painted in green and yellow stripes like a zebra. These are iconic Addis Ababa colours and represent the ubiquitous green and yellow corrugated fences which enclose building sites throughout the city. The donkey is loaded up with antennas, magazines and a TV dish.
“There is so much propaganda in the media that talks about the transformation of the city like the Ethiopian Renaissance… For me it’s like a bedtime story, very playful and you hear it everywhere all the time, I call it the Ethiopian fantasy.” It was his first performance in public on the street, instead of in a gallery. “I felt like I was in the right place, the reactions were diverse and intense and so walking the donkey evoked a lot of discussions.”
Henok is interested in contrasts: the donkey is a very innocent animal that has been on the street for more than 2000 years carrying things. The animal is a direct contrast with the technological hardware it is carrying. “I just want people to see it and think about it when they go home. I don’t mind exactly how they perceive it. I feel related to the donkey: you hit the donkey and it doesn’t respond. It’s like Ethiopians: we are dominated by the political system but we don’t respond… we act as if we are innocent and stupid because we are worried about the consequences.”
Donkey in art gallery
In addition to the theme of contrast, Henok also used the donkey to stress the concept of dislocation. He took the green and yellow striped donkey complete with its antennas and laptop inside an art gallery. On the laptop he screened one of his videos depicting Ethiopian city life via the covers of newspapers and magazines. “In Ethiopia the covers are really crowded, without open spaces, like the city. It also combines all topics, so you can find a quote by religious leader next to that by a model. It really shows how Africans are. Everyone wants to be seen on the front page.”
The donkey wasn’t used to standing around in a gallery and started eating one of the other artworks and braying loudly. “Braying is a noise that can be heard a lot in the city but it sounds so different in an art gallery.” In other words, by bringing the donkey into the gallery, Henok brought the city in the gallery. And by carrying out the donkey street performance, he did the opposite: art became part of the city.
Injera on the floor
Another series of work closely related to contrast and dislocation is the Injera series he made: ‘Injeralogy’. Henok put Injera, the national Ethiopian dish, on the floor and combined it with all sorts of inedible things. Injera with medicines and pills composed as a cityscape and dried injera with red paint that suggests the female sexual organ. Henok: “It creates something between pornography and religion, because injera is so holy, so respected and almost referred to as if it’s a human being. It has eyes and a light brown colour like human skin and it’s natural and organic.” Henok’s playfulness aims to provoke his viewers into reassessing their assumptions about the nature of reality.
Henok works from which he calls his ‘concept store’, his sketchbook filled with ideas and experimental concepts for future art works. He sketched a donkey fashion show, a biosphere and is currently researching the concept of transforming his daily life into an artwork. “The process is more important to me than the end piece. I like the fact that I can think open-mindedly and however I want in this paper world without any limitations. Maybe I’ll exhibit the ‘concept store’, just the ideas without even realizing them.”
Henok’s reoccurring theme is to turn reality on its head and invite his viewers to explore their lives from fresh and unlimited perspectives.