Handstand on the street
“Sometimes I see a place that is perfect for a short unplanned performance. I can do a handstand or crazy posture for a while on the street. It’s the same as a beautiful car on the street, people will look, it distracts and people wake up from their daily reality. Or if a naked person from an indigenous tribe covered with body paint walked through the city. It would attract a lot of attention: positive or negative! People tend to judge and I want to be free from judgments and not think or act in limitations, borders or divisions. Life is global and until people understand this, life is challenging.” Tamrat works as a performance artist but also as a painter. As an artist his aim is to distort reality and to wake people up.
Importance of being green
In ‘Notion of Green’ in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Tamrat dressed up in a smart business suit and stood on a stage behind a lectern with a bank of microphones in front of him. It seemed as if he was preparing to give a speech, but he didn’t say anything. Instead he dipped a microphone into bright green paint and began to paint his suit completely green. The only noise was the sound of the microphone rubbing over his body. Tamrat: “It’s a way to wake people up that only passively talking about the environment and preserving nature is not enough! Action is necessary!”
From father to son
According to his father, a traditional weaver from the countryside of Ethiopia, “Tamrat is creating work by connecting to his soul and spirit.” The only difference between them was that Tamrat obtained a diploma from an art school and his father didn’t. For a long time the young artist didn’t know what his father meant.
After graduating from the Addis Ababa University, School of Fine Arts and Design, he continued to experiment with form, composition and colors. His skills increased, but only after some years of technical research did he have an epiphany and finally understands his father’s words. Creating art became no longer a question of technical research, but a meditative state of creation. “I admired my father for the patience he had to work on the same piece of cloth for days. I finally understood he was in deep meditation while he was weaving. At that moment I realised art is not just a technical skill. It goes beyond that and becomes meditative because the spirit opens up.”
Lost in forms and research
Tamrat continues: “Nowadays I can totally lose myself in the moment and in forms and in my research. I can now work for a long time on one artwork. Before my epiphany, I could finish my compositions in a day because at that time, creating art was still a matter of technique for me. But now, while I meditate and create I question myself and have a dialogue with my spirit. Meditation gives me hope that the chaos we live in will change overtime. It gives me a lot of energy to work. Creating art has become a ritual, a connection with my soul. I develop through thinking and meditation. Hopefully people who have an encounter with my work also experience being in a different state of mind.”
He started to study tribes from Southern Ethiopia where his parents come from and translated aspects of tradition into modernity. Tamrat: “Only when I understand history and traditions, can I understand why people are acting in a certain way at a certain time in a particular geographical area. Then I can look at myself and relate to that and question my own rituals in the present time and place. Why do indigenous tribes paint themselves with body paint and abstract figures and feel totally comfortable and confident?“ He studies these patterns and meanings and transforms them into new symbols and entities that imbue them with a new meaning. He distorts the world around him in order to grasp it and explore the relationship between tradition & modernity.
“It’s important to understand history because it makes the present clear. The present is chained to the past; understanding the past helps to create concepts for now.” He has sketchbooks in which he studies tribal patterns that he transforms and uses in his artworks. Tamrat: “I can’t live without art, without creating and studying culture and tradition. Art has energy and power; I use it to challenge problems. Our tribes and cultures offer a rich tradition but it needs to be translated into a modern way of thinking.”
Books as artworks
While researching these indigenous cultures thoughts constantly emerge in Tamrat’s mind. He translates these thoughts into ‘books’ full of texts, sketches and drawings. “These books are artworks not just sketch books. It’s like a search for my own identity and existence that I try to find and understand by researching and questioning the world around me. I write about what I see and feel.”
He translates these thoughts and his research into symbols that stand for example for peace, purification, love, meditation or wisdom. He has created more than 700 symbols so far. But the symbols also have a deeper poetry. “The words and symbols are like a protection, they give me confidence because I want to understand and feel the wisdom and knowledge of the ancient tribes. I want to respect both tradition and modernity. I want to write my own interpretation that I have about indigenous cultures.”
Tamrat is also one of the founding members of Netsa Art Village a well-established art community in a park in Addis Ababa. “After graduating from the art academy everyone seemed to disappear into an individual state of mind. There were no art studios or places to expose work to an audience, there was no art scene. Students came out of art school but there were no art centres, so the art scene was dead. Luckily my generation is different. A lot of artists gathered together and set up art studios, renting places together to work and keep up the artistic spirit. They are contemporary monasteries, like Habesha Art Studio and Netsa Art Village! A community offers more possibilities for artists to develop, to discuss art and to share costs, but most importantly to educate society about art, to confront them with different forms.”
Impact of art is priceless
Tamrat explains: “Up until now most people in Ethiopia think art is the equivalent of realistic or abstract paintings. They don’t have a full understanding of what art is, but in general there is a positive perception and the more you confront people, the more they will understand. Having a space to communicate with the audience is important; through art centres we can educate people, also via concerts, exhibitions, discussions, poetry readings, movies and kid’s workshops. Without such a place you’ll kill the contemporary cultural tradition. You can’t begin to measure the importance of art centres in money.”
Art as a belief
What Tamrat wants to preach with his art is that one day people will be confident about themselves and non-judgmental about others and live without fear in a globalized world. Tamrat: “Art is a belief for me. I think it’s useless to preach any kind of borders, like in religion, geography and so on. Until people connect with their souls there will be these kinds of divisions and judgments.