Merikokeb Berhanu (b. 1977, Addis Ababa), graduated from the Addis Ababa University, Alle School of Fine Arts and Design in 2002 and was trained by an elite group of Modernist artists at the influential art school.
Absorbed by questions of life and death and the human condition, Merikokeb draws inspiration from nature and life itself. Although she has lived and worked mostly in urban environments, the motifs in her work derive predominantly from nature. Merikokeb explains that she closes herself off from the outside world to delve deeply into her own subconscious, expressing with colours and shapes what cannot be communicated with words. She tries to capture the feelings and emotions that have accompanied her through the different stages of her life. Her artworks are not about specific moments in time and place; rather, they are situated somewhere between the conscious and the subconscious.
Merikokeb uses recurrent themes from nature to referring to personal concepts and emotions. For example, her image of the brain situated outside the body, signifies imbalances of life caused by human conciseness and ingenuity. With repeated references to cells, “the building blocks of life” in both human and organic forms, Merikokeb reminds us that all life is interconnected. She aims to create an opposition to the imbalance and injustice she sees in the world around her. The embryo, another recurrent symbol, represents the nurturing and birth of people’s ideas and opinions. Merikokeb also embraces ambiguity in her works by leaving them untitled, thereby allowing the viewer to interpret the enigmatic symbolic language for themselves.
Apart from the influence of the Ethiopian Modernist legacy, Merikokeb's work resonates with twentieth century Western female artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Hilma af Klimt, who created paintings that depict their own emotional states, following their subconscious and translating feelings and ideas into abstract symbols. Merikokeb's attempt to represent her inner world also resembles the Symbolists' desire to escape from reality by expressing their personal dreams and visions through colour, form, and composition. Yet, despite such visual references to European art movements, Merikokeb's practice is intrinsically African; she employs this syncretic vision to carve out a space in the current discourse in contemporary art.