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Ermias Kifleyesus is a Belgian artist, born (1974) in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and lives and works in Brussels (Belgium). He makes drawings, paintings, films and installations.
He participated at numerous group exhibitions, including: the M HKA (museum for contemporary art) in Antwerp, the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Deurle (BE), Casino Luxembourg – Forum d’art contemporain, Luxembourg / Musée National de Monte Carlo, Monaco / Maison Grégoire, Brussels / Atelier 340, Brussels / Netwerk Aalst / Elaine Levy Project, Brussels / Harlan Levey Project, Brussels / Annie Gentils Gallery, Antwerp / Marion De Cannière Gallery, Antwerp / W/139 Basement, Rotterdam …
During the last years, I have been focusing on a project located in international telephone cabins where I install pieces of paper or canvas on the walls and tables that over time become covered with interactive marks, notations and traces that individuals record and leave as they pass through the space, talk on the telephones and wait for their calls to connect to all points of the globe. These cabins are the lifelines to people’s distant places, past and future, the containers of present connection. I visit the cabins every week and often collaborate with whatever imagery I find there, finally I remove the supports from the walls when I feel they are ready to complete in my studio. This process takes different amounts of time depending on the location and intensity of the cabin use. My work is about investigating connections, transience, meaning, differences and similarities between time and place. These telephone booths are also connected to Internet, video games and fax machines. They are charged with the importance of connection to everywhere in the world. The cabin marks are akin to cave paintings, evidence of fact and fiction, conscious and unconscious scribbles, numbers, codes, needs and dreams, each mark is a fragment of recorded life. The final works are complex, interwoven with layers of doodles, text and imagery, as well as meanings that hold echoes of absence and presence. The surfaces are dynamic with seemingly infinite varieties of material, even punctured and mended at times.
The works are containers of emotion and the very human impulse to leave evidence of unique lives. These traces of people, time and society are my inspirational springboards, they are contemporary interlinked histories honoring urban lives and the infinite connections between the people of the world.
The world’s score
There is a compulsion in the work by Ermias Kifleyesus (°1974, Addis Ababa), as there was with Magritte, to pull an image of the world into the sphere of his work. This is not about a depiction or representation but using fragments from the world to get to grips with or even precipitate the mystery of the reality around us. Both artists’ worlds are of course very different. In today’s modern society, the world in which Ermias Kifleyesus moves, there are notes like multiculturalism, migration, globalisation, over-consumption, and the overpopulation of large cities. They implicitly form the background to which his work relates and the elements the artist appropriates and makes his own.
Ermias Kifleyesus’ art doesn’t want to create something from nothing, from a tabula rasa. Rather it engages existing systems, the marks and creations left behind by others. He wants to bring these together, rework, partly erase, select and add to them. In that sense, there is a collective factor present in each piece; he uses other people’s contributions. In recent work he started with damaged canvases left behind by second-hand traders at flea markets in Amsterdam. Discarded, anonymous compositions, often faded and covered with layers of dirt, dragged around for some time but eventually becoming so damaged they are left behind with the rubbish. Using a chemical adhesive mix and sticking on thin cotton rags, Kifleyesus meticulously peels away the dirt, varnish and layers of paint from such a discovered composition. In this process, in which chance and imperfections play their parts, one image becomes many images, like a filmic sequence of variations giving an insight into the artwork’s creation and degradation. Kifleyesus makes visible and destroys. In his archaeological working method the process takes precedence over the actual image of what is or becomes visible.
Kifleyesus can possibly be seen as a sort of ethnographer and archaeologist of our current globalist consumer society. He himself talks of a kind of subservience to the multitude of signs, images and traces people leave behind in all nooks and crannies. This artist’s palette consists of anonymous and unwitting contributions by others. In 2006, the artist shifted his working domain to international telephone shops in large cities where you can make cheap international calls. These shops are predominantly used by city dwellers with migrant backgrounds, with family and friends in distant countries. The isolated booths form a point of communication and contact; they are a place where everyone becomes accessible through modern technology. The booths contain stories from many countries. When telephoning, when our attention isn’t on reading or writing and the pen is given free reign, we make hasty doodles and notes, patterns are filled in and we allow our pen to draw round shapes. It seems as if our hand is disconnected from our brain and is given carte blanche to draw spontaneously. It is these chaotic scribbles by many anonymous callers that fascinate the artist. In consultation with the shop operators he collects what callers have unwittingly left behind. He replaces the pens and paper, later introduced canvas and fabric as bases, and subtly steers what and where people doodle. Kifleyesus initially replaced the full notebooks for empty ones twice a week in a self-imposed protocol. He later experimented with existing images, canvases and advertisements that he allowed them to deface. These isolated cells, in which customers have personal conversations, are Kifleyesus’ laboratory where he researches peoples’ drawing behaviour. The colours of the pens change, various colours are offered. Pre-drawn forms by the artist steer the scribbling behaviour; pieces of plastic cover certain parts and trigger specific scribbles. Through the years the artist has been looking into how certain markings attract other markings. How you can work with various colours, how you can suggest patterns and can work with texture and more. The artist maintains contact with a number of shops in various countries and regularly visits them to replace the materials. He sees the callers’ contributions as an ‘open source’ from which to draw from. The artist also collects the wooden shelves on which the telephones stand and that contain traces of sweat and dirt, even the soiled phone cables are a starting point for a new sculptural piece. The result is collective work by unsuspecting participants.
Moving on from this base material, Kifleyesus recently opted for wooden window shutters. As symbols of both screening off and offering perspective, the horizontal strips refer to the text or strips of a comic book story. The horizontal rails have tape stuck to them after which the scribbles are transferred to other bases. Fragmentary, narrative or reflective, the result is a composition combining abstraction and figuration. After various years the artist has now accumulated an extremely large collection of forms, colours and patterns with which he can set to work as a painter (with brush and colour palette) . By way of tape, adhesive, rubbing, pushing and wiping materials he composes a composition on canvases and wall surfaces that read as an orchestrated amalgamation of the many small scribbles. He showcased a large wall piece in the summer of 2014 on the monumental wall of the central space on the ground floor of the Muhk. These compositions function on various levels. From a distance looking like a detailed abstract colour field, almost a Jackson Pollock ‘drip painting’, but you see patterns, figuration, repetition and overlapping when close up. These pieces create an ordered chaos, forming a reflection of today’s world on both micro and macro levels. The unwitting contributions of numerous outsiders make the pieces a unique testament, conducted by the hand of the artist, subservient but crucial in masterly mixing and dosing from the wide array.
Large street posters, found in vandalised bus shelters on the street are also folded into sections and taped up. Every few days Kifleyesus re-folds the posters and offers the callers a new fragment to doodle on. Hundreds of unsuspecting people make small additions to the cartography of compositions. The drawers react with one another, continuing filling in or erasing that which has been left behind. Famous faces from the fashion and film world are depicted on these advertising posters. Even if they are largely scribbled on, they still maintain their iconic value and are still instantly recognisable. More explicitly, these street posters introduce the interesting tension between public and private in these pieces. After the callers’ additions, Kifleyesus unfolds the posters and reintroduces them into the public domain of the museum or exhibition, but filled with markings like scars distorting the large multinationals’ seductive advertising.
The artist also finds universally recognisable marks on cheap plastic bags and cardboard boxes. Logos and handwritten inscriptions on boxes are like prefab drawings and scribbles with a totally different intention. The brand names or symbols of the multinationals do stand for something, namely a product, but in a certain way are just as anonymous and erasable. The artist is interested in how printed bags and boxes are reused. In a large city like Brussels the homeless use cardboard boxes to make themselves a shelter for sleeping in the public domain. Kifleyesus sticks tape on the hand-written inscriptions on the boxes and then removes the tape, thus removing the writing to then collect it on cardboard boxes in his installations. As if he wants to safeguard the public space – and in particular the protective spaces of those that live on the edge of society – from labels. In his own work, he creates an antithesis to the critical saturation of written labels and advertising.
A recent series of monumental canvasses brings all these various inscriptions from the world together in an exceptional way. Imprints of anonymous paintings, inscriptions on promotional bags and numerous scribbles and doodles are meticulously applied on and over each other using rubbing, adhesive and gel mediums. High and low cultures stand side-by-side and come together in an all-over technique giving the imprints a crackled and lived effect. Each piece seems to have been scrupulously put together and consists of a foreground, middle ground, and background – likening historic landscapes. The images bring together divergent times, perspectives and viewpoints. Each piece contains various openings, viewpoints, and ways in which they can be approached. Familiarity is alternated by abstraction and ambiguity. They are aesthetically compelling images saying something about the world, about value, commercialism and communication. The artist makes us participants in his quest into learning to understand the things around us through dismantling and re-composing them. Much like an anthropologist, he mingles in society and then steps away. His working domain is not limited to the large Western cities where he regularly exhibits. In his recent work he also involved his birth country Ethiopia, which is in full development. The rapid pace with which buildings are being erected in the capital city results in many labourers working under difficult conditions. Kifleyesus takes new overalls to these cities and asks the labourers to exchange them with their own. In his hands, these unclean overalls, drenched in sweat, become a modern portrait of an African city on the rise. After undoing the seams they are fixed onto canvases as an ode to physical labour. In Ermias Kifleyesus’ work, these traces of hardworking labourers from another continent are in sharp contrast to the many meaningless scribbles and logos which frequently appear in other pieces. Yet they are both witness to one and the same interest in creation, globalisation and in making human creations visible where they usually remain unseen. The artist leaves space for other people’s marks, yet at the same time is able to construct a completely unique visual form of language which gets us thinking on various levels.