East African Artists: “Crossing” Memories, Art, and (Forced?) Migration

We all struggle at times with “crossing,” the movement from one place to another, from what we know to what we don’t, from displacement of bodies, minds, and hearts. Sometimes, crossing means moving from life to death. Sometimes, it means traveling far from “home,” however we define it. Sometimes, memories cross our minds.

Last night I attended the Artist Reception for a show called Crossing: East African Artists and Social Change, held at the M. Rosetta Hunter Gallery at Seattle Central Community College. All three artists had roots in and work focused on Ethiopia and/or Eritrea. Their individual pieces of art  also provided broader views around longing, loss, searching, and migrating, both literally and metaphorically. Each artist had a theme of “crossing” in the art. Each spoke briefly about his/her work. It was wonderful.

Selam Bekele’s art included photography, collage, mixed media, and a short film. She referred to her art as “Tizita,” an Amharic word which has the sense of memory, or longing, or nostalgia in English. Having written about the fascinating, poignant story of Prince Alemayehu: The First Ethiopian Adoptee?, I looked forward to seeing Selam’s film “The Prince of Nowhere” at last night’s reception. It was a dynamic, evocative film.

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Selam Bekele, Hunter Gallery, February 2015 © Maureen McCauley Evans

In 1868, Alemayehu arrived at age 7 in England, far from his homeland of Ethiopia. The film, an exercise in crossing time and space, shows him as a handsome young man (he died at 18 years of age in 1879), in contemporary western clothing, on modern streets, in a modern classroom. His voice in the film has a British accent. Sometimes the images are blurred, and the light distorted, all reflecting Alemayehu’s life in an exile about which he had no voice. The brief film, like Alemayehu’s brief life, is poetic and sorrowful, a story of resilience and despair.

My friend Yadesa Bojia had several powerful pieces of art at the gallery, most with bright colors and passionate exhortation for the power of literacy and family. A brand new piece, exhibited for the first time, was titled “Hanna,” a heartfelt tribute to Hanna Alemu, also known as Hanna Williams. Hanna was an Ethiopian girl adopted in 2008 by a family in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. She died in May 2011, and her adoptive parents were found guilty of homicide by abuse in September 2013. Hanna died from malnutrition and hypothermia, according to the coroner, alone outside her home on a 40 degree night.

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Yadesa Bojia, Hunter Gallery, February 2015 © Maureen McCauley Evans

The painting has Ethiopia’s traditional colors of red, yellow, and green, with the image of Hanna in black outside behind the family home, beneath a stark bare tree branch. It’s wrenching to see in simplicity and vibrancy. I’ve written extensively about Hanna, and attended nearly all of the trial in the summer of 2013. Ethiopians all around in Yaddi, who is the designer of the current African Union flag, is also a singer and songwriter, and wrote about Hanna. His album information is available here.

The third East African artist was Yegizaw “Yeggy” Michael. His work included vibrant acrylic paintings about crossing the desert, and crossing the sea, from the perspective of migration and loss. He also had an amazing installation piece that depicted the tragedies of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

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Yegizaw “Yeggy” Michael, Hunter Gallery, February 2015 © Maureen McCauley Evans

Some 3,000 people in 2014 are estimated to have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean en route to Europe, according to this report. Yeggy’s art, about 8 feet long on the floor, had rocks and sand around a blue plastic sheet that held blue scarves and blue face masks. There was one black scarf, with peace symbols. Yeggy talked about how the journey these immigrants has an echo in the slave ships of the African slave trade, and how these “crossings” are terrifying and heartbreaking. We all make crossings, he noted. Some of us do not succeed.

The art will be on display at the Hunter Gallery in Seattle until February 13.

 

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