Emebet Belete is a well-traveled artist of Ethiopian descent. Her work http://emebet.wix.com/emebetbelete#! portrays the traditions and practices of a beautiful and somewhat exotic culture. I wanted to find out what inspires her. Read on and find out, but first …
“…Most of my work relates to my experience growing up … For me, art is the way of telling my stories and sharing it with people…”
MICHAEL: Hello Emebet, Your work is so warm and human. In fact, your figurative works are very familial and almost tribal. You seem to like depicting families and groups of people, No?
EMEBET: Yes, Michael. I love people, seeing our culture, how we get together in good and bad times. I grew up in a big family (one of eight children). My parents were from the countryside and I grew up listening to stories that involved lots of people from different parts of Ethiopia.
The traditional clothing, the hair styles, paintings, weddings, churches, funeral ceremonies and even the tombs are fascinating. Just watching my mother and others prepare food and coffee has been such a part of my life. I love how our traditional cloth with beautiful patterns and designs are still hand woven and used by most people. Those brilliant colors, patterns and cultural activities are where I started to really look at people.
MICHAEL: I think that Ethiopians are among the most beautiful people in the world. Just stunning! Are they aware of this? Or is that considered vain and narcissistic?
EMEBET: This is a tough question! When we live in it, I don't think people are aware of it. When I have travelled, I've heard many people say that Ethiopians are beautiful. I don't think when I grew up in Ethiopia, I was aware that we were beautiful. For myself, in my family, I grew up hearing I was beautiful, but I didn't generalize this to the whole country.
MICHAEL: Your work is also dignified and has a strong sense of ceremony and ritual. Is that intentional on your part? Also, do you consider your work Ethiopian Contemporary art, Canadian art or just art? I mean, are you in Ethiopia now?
EMEBET: Most of my work relates to my experience growing up. Every year, people celebrate Timket and Meskel in a big procession. Almost every day of the month, somewhere a saint is celebrated in a church or peoples' homes with singing, dancing, drumming and more. People dressed head to toe in white with intricate coloured hems and hand woven cotton "shemmas" are art in action.
MICHAEL: Wow. Your description certainly makes it sound like living art.
EMEBET: When I see and experience the long gatherings of figures who seem to reach up to the sky and experience it, I feel the calmness, the heavenliness. Even today I imagine, dream and think about these people and images. I also like how Ethiopians get together for coffee ceremonies, hair dos or walk and run. I love the stories told through traditional paintings, so I include this intentionally in my work.
As you can tell, I'm truly proud of my background and how life gave me the opportunity to see the world. I grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, lived in Canada, worked in China and now I'm in Canada. For me, art is the way of telling my stories and sharing it with people. I prefer to call my work contemporary art. I very much enjoy working with mixed media. Mixed media had given me the freedom to experiment wherever I am and use different materials to express my feelings.
Using different materials really comes because of my first experiences. Just after I graduated from the Art school of Addis Ababa, I did not have much material and at that time, I was mostly doing sculpture. I built a studio in one corner of my parents’ property with basic materials. At that time, I was using mud from our backyard as modeling clay, even using some roots or fire wood pieces for making statues. In 1991, that studio was burned down and I had to start from scratch (with support from my family and friends). This is the time I started to do paper collage using magazines. This is also the time I used pastel for the first time. When I went to China, I started to use rice paper and work on Chinese scroll. Over the years, I used all sorts of materials. Learning and experimenting is what I love most when I create art.
MICHAEL: What did you do in China? Where were you? Do people there appreciate contemporary art or are they just trying to survive?
EMEBET: I was teaching primary art at an International School in Teda, Tianjin. Teda is a modern city (25 years ago it didn't even exist) and does have a contemporary art museum. Teda is full of public art - in the parks, in the square in front of city hall, on the streets - some huge and some quite intimate. I took my students to visit some of these statues for inspiration. When we first visited Beijing, we went to 798, which is a big area where you can find studio after studio where artists work and exhibit. I would say with the time we live in, people are appreciating contemporary art more and more.
MICHAEL: I've been to Canada - Toronto - a few times and love it. It's very fresh and progressive. How do you feel there as an artist?
EMEBET: There's a lot happening in Toronto. I love Montreal's art culture too. I lived in Kingston for many years and I'm living in Belleville now. Wherever I go, there really does seem to be a great art community.
MICHAEL: I get the sense that Ethiopian culture is very much about the group and individuals submitting to what’s best for everyone. Is there room for individuality in the culture?
EMEBET: Excellent question. Well, the "room" was tight for me. As a girl growing up, I was expected to prepare coffee, and take part in household chores. I was going to have an arranged marriage at one point. There's the expectation of listening to parents, elders, authority figures. That respect can be very important, but it also restrains us.
My unbelievably supportive and strong mother never had formal education. Yet she was the one who said, "No, I'll sacrifice and do the work so my children don't have to, and Emebet should have a choice."
My art school in Addis Ababa didn't accept many women. When I chose sculpture as my major, I was told straight out that it was for men. When I carried my canvases, frames or materials, the boys on the street would tease me for being a porter.
I'd have to say there was (and is) room for individuality, but to take a different path takes support and strength. When I came to Canada though, I was shocked. I found myself thinking that here there was too much individualism and selfishness and in Ethiopia too much collectivism.
It's all changing, anyway. There are more girls and boys going to school in Addis. It's incredible to see everyone with cell phones, even shoe shine boys on the corners. By the way, we were checking out TCAF (Toronto Comic Arts Festival) last weekend. One of the highlights for me was seeing Kazu Kibuishi using his tablet and demonstrating how he creates the backgrounds for his Amulet books. Creating beautiful colours and shades with Photoshop. When I see other peoples' passion for art, whatever the medium, it makes me think how much I enjoy the process of creating art.
MICHAEL: When you are painting, what are you thinking about? Is the process of creating art more intellectual, physical, emotional or spiritual? Do you need silence or music while you paint?
EMEBET: When I begin a painting, it feels like I’m going to a new place, like I’m traveling and something is about to happen. I have to start with an idea or a sketch. Once I start creating, I’m deeply involved, experimenting, exploring and fixing what I’m doing. I’ll usually have something quiet playing and I get lost in the moment.
Whatever idea I start with, I think of what would be the most effective way of expressing it. Also, what material works best and most of all, I think of my experience and why I chose to work on this idea. A lot of what I work with comes from everyday life - a colour or combination, people or landscapes, images that I register in my mind. Being back to Canada this year, we had a long, cold winter.
MICHAEL: Believe me, you weren’t the only ones!
EMEBET: This had been the most beautiful winter I ever had. I couldn't help it but to create about the winter scene. My backyard (I'm living at the end of the city with no houses behind) is absolutely beautiful with nature. When we had long, snowy days, the whole world was covered and what we could see were shapes of white. I enjoyed challenging myself with this experience.
I started using acrylics, then switched into layering rice paper. The incredible part of moving to rice paper was all the different landscape shades I found by layering just two different colours of paper.
Some of what I do is intellectual. Growing up, education was very important to my father (he was one of the few people in his generation to come out of the countryside and have modern education, so he knew how life-changing it could be), so one of my recent pieces was my father juxtaposed with the Amharic alphabet.
Some of what I do is spiritual. When I lived in Montreal and experienced the ice storm (1998), for the first time in my life, I wanted to do the beauty of it. I don’t have a philosophy of art. Creating and viewing the world as an artist is the part that makes me whole.
MICHAEL: Much of what I've seen of your work really captures the cultural aspects and cues of Ethiopia. Is this your way of trying to explain the culture as a whole or are you really just painting for your own personal pleasure?
EMEBET: Both, I think. I paint because I love doing it. Also, I enjoy sharing my stories, my journey and my life experiences through my art. Ethiopia is always part of this.
MICHAEL: Finally Emebet, So many people don't really understand contemporary art. Some people are intimidated by it and others are suspicious of it. What's the point of art anyway? Why should people care? Art isn't curing cancer.
EMEBET: I taught art to kids in an elementary school for several years. We encourage and ask young children to show us their emotions, their feelings, and do this through art. It's incredible - every child at a young age can be inspired and do art one way or another. I've lived on three continents and that's true everywhere I've been. I think we have a long way to go to keep and nurture children's creativity, curiosity and art appreciation as they become adults.
I'm always amazed at how every society, materially advantaged or not, even those in war zones, finds a way to make art. A lot of our lives are routine; the things we feel we have to do. But art has the chance to break through that, stop us for a moment when we see the world in a new way. It's what makes us human. I think those who have the opportunity to grow with art, history, and cultural appreciation, live well and enjoy life.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Thanks Emebet. I enjoyed our chat.
EMEBET: I enjoyed our chat too. Thank you so much. I appreciate your great work and look forward to reading more of your interviews.
Check out Emebet Belete at http://emebet.wix.com/emebetbelete#!