Although my life is influenced by the society I live in, the environment I am part of and the country and culture I belong to, I am aware that one’s positive and negative experiences cannot be perceived and interpreted separately from the global context. Through my work, I am constantly questioning our individual and collective responsibilities and accountability vis-a-vis nature as well as the welfare of all human beings irrespective of their geographical location, race, religion, socio-political and economic status.’ - Dawit Abebe
Monumental figures stand clutching bulging sacks, some filled with wild animals, others with an entire city’s worth of buildings, while small groups of people appear at miniature scale gathered beneath their looming presence. Ethiopian artist Dawit Abebe’s artistic practice centres around an investigation of power structures. This latest series, entitled The Balance of Things (መጠን), presented in a solo exhibition at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, London, marks a new focus on the devastating impacts of disproportionate wealth and greed.
Over the years, Abebe has developed a distinct artistic language that incorporates painting, drawing and collage techniques to create highly dynamic compositions that resonate not only with Ethiopian history and social fabrics, but also reflect on issues inherent to capitalism and the world order at large. The artist cites his first trip to the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia in 2008 as a key turning point. ‘Until that moment,’ he says, ‘I was an urban citizen who did not engage with the diverse modes of life existing outside Addis in the remote regions.’ Since that first trip, he has returned several times and continues to take inspiration from the rich and diverse culture of his country. The departing point for this latest series, for example, was Abebe’s observation of a ritual amongst the Bodi tribe known as ‘Kel’. Each year, the tribe selects a group of young men to spend six months living in isolation, feeding on fresh cow’s milk and blood provided by their families with the intention of getting as fat as possible. On the day of the parade, the man who is the most overweight wins and earns the “Fattest Man” title for life, after which the participants return to the community and resume their daily lives. ‘I am fascinated by the time-based performative character of the ritual through which a capitalistic method is experimented with and then consciously dropped once it has served its purpose,’ explains the artist.
In Abebe’s compositions, the presence of an enormous, naked bulging body - rendered in vivid detail in pencil and white charcoal - comes to represent excessive human actions be it in a form of consuming food, managing nature or dealing with power and wealth. In The Balance of Things 3, for example, a figure - monstrous in both height and width - stands with his back to the viewer, wearing a sack strapped to his front filled with cut-out images of wild animals. The figure’s face is buried in the colourful collage of imagery while the shadow extending from his feet takes the form of a slender, well-dressed businessman, wearing a suit and hat. ‘It baffles me to see that even peace is dictated by the rich minority. It has become a luxury item that they can dispense or easily take away from the weak and poor if they do not abide by their rules,’ states the artist.
Interestingly, in these latest works, many of the smaller figures that surround the dominating figure have been literally stripped off their individual identity, their bodies turned into anonymous silhouettes cut-out from newspapers. Meanwhile, the incorporation of text relates back to the artist’s continued preoccupation with the dissemination and manipulation of knowledge. In many of the smaller scale works, the male figure is bent over or wrapped around the collaged imagery, sometimes appearing childlike in an explicit gesture of hoarding while in others, the body takes on an abstract, architectural shape. In the Balance of Things 22, for example, the figure’s torso and elongated limbs form a literal wall around the stack of buildings, creating a tactile representation of the restrictive force of dominating powers.
Abebe concludes: ‘Everything on this earth comes with its own cycles and equilibrium be it the sun, the moon, day and night, the different seasons, plants, creatures and human beings. However, the competition and greed amongst the few who amass far more than they can chew, constantly disrupts the balance of things causing irreversible damage including to the ecosystem of our planet.’