Thinking Africa, Painting Europa: Ermias Kifleyesus
Thinking Africa & Painting Europa by Ermias Kifleyesus, groups nine paintings in three main bodies of work that were produced between 2019 and 2020. One of portraits: Picasso Colleague, Three-Thousand-Century Man and Mask Man; one of recognisable and cross-cultural landscapes: Thinking Africa & Painting Europa and Addis London; and one that deals directly with issues of human flow and dislocation: Wildlife Meeting, Displacement II & Photo of Lost Possibilities.
Clustered under the umbrella of migration, displacement and trans-culturality, these works deal with the de-colonisation of historical narratives and cultural restitution. Paintings like Picasso Colleague allude to the cultural appropriation of African masks by a number of Modernist artists such as Picasso, and their uprooting and subsequent employment in the so-called Primitivist movement. Ermias pays homage to those craftsmen and artists who, anonymous to the West, were, in fact, distant colleagues of well-known artistic figures in the early 20th-Century Europe and essential to the development of art history as we know it today.
The migration crisis between Africa and Europe is encapsulated in Displacement II, which addresses the issue of dislocation not only through its technical application, but also from a conceptual and visual standpoint. Constructed of many juxtaposed pieces of canvas, the final image is built up through a thorough process of addition and subtraction. Pieces of second-hand canvases acquired in flee markets or given away are the support where Ermias also introduces printed images and home-made recycled oil paint. He then scratches, marks, glues and cuts the pieces of fabric until the desired image is achieved. In it, every void, silence and loaded piece of the composition is deliberate and a necessary element of the story. He works in what he calls 'the space in between', a new territory of interstice between layers of oil paint, varnish, canvas and glue. Visually and conceptually, Displacement II tackles the subject of human flow and the realisation of a 'failed utopia' through the various fragmented scenarios that, intermittently, pop all around the painting. These condensed moments depict secluded portions of landscapes or possibilities that, pieced together give life to the final and discontinued image.
In the painting that gives name to the exhibition, Thinking Africa & Painting Europa, Ermias assembles a depiction of Berlin's art district with an 'African view'. Using what could be described as 'African colours', Ermias reminds the viewer of Africa's vital impact on Europe's current standing. The substantial importation of goods, knowledge and raw material into Europe from African countries over the centuries - forcibly in the majority of cases - have undeniably contributed to Europe's thriving status quo. This, while impoverishing the economies that were the source of such tangible and intangible goods. The use of warm, fire-like tones is alluded to by Ermias as an attempt to 'light and warm up the paintings' hearts'. Wielding a torch as he dives in his works, Ermias, like a postmodern Prometheus, takes us to a no-place where knowledge is paramount to understanding our own historical and sociological context.
All in all, Ermias' production is one layered narrative of cultural restitution and trans-cultural dialogue.