I was one of the invited guests to attend the Private View and official opening of an art exhibition at the Gallery of African Art in London on the 3rd of February 2017 displaying the works of the Ethiopian born painter Daniel (Mulugeta) Soresa who is now residing in Norway.
This was my second time to view Daniel’s works here, though it was the first time to meet him in person. Daniel’s paintings were part of the Africa My Africa - Connecting Boundaries, group exhibition at this gallery. That exhibition was jointly curated by Gallery of African Art and the Norwegian Lahad Gallery; and run between October and December last year.
Daniel was born in 1978 in Addis Ababa. He migrated to Spain when he was 6 years old and lived in Barcelona where he attended San Salvador School. His life in Barcelona has a lot of influence on developing his already budding interest in art. His exposure to the history and works of famous artists such as the Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi and painter Antoni Tàpies at this early age had a lasting bearing on determining the direction and developing his skills in art. Daniel was already captivated by the abstract works of the renowned Ethiopian artist Maitre Artist Afework Tekle, when he came across the artworks of this famous artist printed on the calendar pages that were hanging on walls of this family home.
Returning to Ethiopia at the age of 13, Daniel attended the Italian Cultural Institute where he studied, among other things, the history of art. He continued practicing and developing his skill by spending time with craftsmen and painters who rented the property owned by his father. It is here where Daniel produced his first works that portrayed the influence of his hero, Afework Tekle. Daniel then moved and spent some time living and working in a few West African countries including Togo, Mali, etc., where he was exposed to works of different African artists.
I interviewed Daniel, with a view of sharing our conversation on my YouTube channel. My first question to him was to tell me how he came about to be an artist. His response, was very interesting. ‘I think’, he replied, ‘one maybe taught or trained to be a painter, but it is impossible to teach or train anyone to be an artist. One needs to be born to be one.’ Reflecting on his childhood experience, he told me that he used to doodle images of various things on the pages of his exercise books. He remembers vividly how his father started to count the number of pages in his exercise books as he noticed that they were shrinking by the day. Daniel was tearing off the pages he was drawing on so that his father would find out what he was up to and tell him off.
Daniel was bewildered by the fact that while most of the walls and books of Ethiopian Orthodox Churches were decorated with fascinating paintings, those who created them did not have a respectable social status in the Ethiopian society. Art was not considered to be a means of earning one’s bread. So, even if a young person showed a talent and a burning desire to be an artist, every parent’s dream was that their child/children to achieve academically, get a job and earn an income that could sustain the family. Thus, discouraging any child from pursuing their dream of becoming an artist was considered to be a duty of caring parents.
Daniel recognizes that there is now a noticeable shift of attitude towards art, including music, video and film production; and the profession of art in general in today’s Ethiopia. He refers to successful and established contemporary Ethiopian artists including the painter/sculptor Wosene Worke Kosrof, who had exhibited at this gallery, Aida Muluneh, Julie Mehretu, Lulseged Retta, artist who made Ethiopia one of the sources of great artists in the African continent, and indeed, of the world.
Daniel notes with a great sense of pride, that Ethiopia has been recognised in the world as the birthplace of great athletes for a long time, but she has now also become the fertile field where great artists are mushrooming by the day. He believes that, although it is sill young, the appreciation of artworks and support the society provides to artists today is so encouraging that the Ethiopian art would in return start playing a positive role in the social, economic and cultural development of the country. To support his assertion, Daniel quotes a saying he came across in Tazania, which reads as, ‘Little is better than too little.’
I asked Daniel if he has any fear of ‘sinking in the deep sea of art and famous artists’ working and living in Western Europe. In his reply, Daniel referred to two points of view as far as this issue is concerned. The first one is his own. He believes, he has successfully traveled through the long and protracted journey to get where he is now; and nothing comes on his way to stop him moving from on. On the other hand, he said, it is not the galleries that decide where an artist should be, but it is the level of the acceptance by the audience that matters. He stressed out, although the sea is wide and deep, he is confident to swim through and survive.
I also asked Daniel regarding his style of painting, abstract art, in relation to the difficulty some viewers experience and express that they fail to decode the cultural references and emotions hidden in the layers of the vivid pigments filled with rich texture. Daniel believes his paintings are not a simple combination of light and colour but an expression of his inner feelings: his happiness and sorrow, his failure and success, his belief system and nationalism, etc. Pointing at one of his paintings, he suggested that, ‘any Ethiopian looking at this painting could see some of the cultural, social and historical imagery of their country hidden in one corner or the other part of the painting.
I finally pointed out to him how much frustrated one can be if one failed to get any meaning out of a given painting. He replied, ‘One can enjoy oneself by just looking and admiring the creativity that went into the work. He went on, ‘one does not always need to see it to accept that something exists. It is like faith. The fact that you don’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist’. Grinning from ear to ear, the astute artist went on, ‘If you can’t read the painting, the painting will read you, instead’.
The exhibition has been advertised to be on until the 1st April 2017
Follow the link below to listen to the interview in Amharic: