“What are the consequences of the journey that contemporary man has embarked on in the name of development, growth, transformation, urbanisation, industrialisation, and now globalisation? We are all striving for a pristine world where concrete jungles reign and human communication is mediated only through advanced technology.”
In Ethiopian artist Dawit Abebe’s third solo exhibition at the gallery, he investigates the impact of man’s actions vis-à-vis nature. Quo Vadis? (8th of May – 3rd of June 2017), at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, presents a new body of work, building on Abebe’s signature collage painting investigations of the devastating effects of urbanisation and industrial ‘progress’.
With an interest in the realm of technology and its impact on human behaviour, Abebe has long examined the role that belief systems, as well as mankind's propensity to search for knowledge, have played on society – particularly in the fields of privacy, alienation and materiality. As technologies advance and develop to bigger and better levels of sophistication, Abebe's interest has lain in the impact these technologies have not only on the environment, but also on human behaviour. His large, colourful paintings have become recognisable for their iconic figures, painted in thick impasto with impressionist overtones, their backs turned to the viewer. These backs often carry on them the weight not just of personal, individual histories, but of collective history.
Quo Vadis? marks a departure as much as it does a continuation. With its nod to previous series such as Background (2014), it turns its focus to environmental issues. Magnified insects hover around human torsos, symbolising all that nature represents in addition to man. “My current work is about the destruction and extinction of living organisms (whether small or big) in the name of modern life, peace and prosperity,” explains Abebe. He investigates disconnection and the ever-widening gap between man and our natural habitat. “Quo Vadis? is, above all, about a loss of equilibrium, deriving from sterilising and at the same time polluting mother earth,” he says. “Man creates his own tragedy by systematically divorcing himself from nature.” These works continue Abebe’s signature use of layering old school exercise books beneath acrylic paint to create a textured background. Recurrent elements such as car plates, archival letters and shadows symbolise man’s values and actions. Previously, Abebe has explored the ways in which rural communities (such as Ethiopia, Madagascar or Kenya) have been affected by advances in technology – predominantly as a signifier of wealth – and, in turn, the way it has impacted on behaviour. Ethiopia, like many developing countries, has struggled with the impact of technology and modernisation and its place within a long and rich local heritage and culture. It is the demarcation at which the two meet that interests Abebe. "The background, the past, always inflicts the present," he explains. "I am looking at how the essences of the present anticipate the future and how all such trajectories locate our existence in the world."