- An Interview with Bekele Mekonnen
As they delight, Bekele Mekonnen’s sculptures provoke critical reflection. Mekonnen’s work stands out immediately for its conceptual facture, as it tropes on and deforms found objects whose everyday material and figurative significance resonate deeply in Ethiopia: mortars, pestles, baking plates, bullets, and syringes—to name but a handful. Perhaps the most evocative among his repertoire of vernacular objects is the plow. Though simple, it enables Mekonnen to cast widely an intricate conceptual net. The life of the plow spans from Ethiopia’s ancient past to its contemporary, and it remains among the essential instruments for the mass cultivation of land. Indeed, its longevity and essential utilitarian value afford the plow, and the enterprise for which it stands, great metaphoric purchase. “No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God,” states the Gospel according to Luke, or “Land to the Tiller!” avows the most popular slogan of the Ethiopian Revolution.
And yet, Mekonnen, with his hand to the plow, reflects back, forward; curls inward the plow’s iron point, blunting its figurative advantage, rendering dull its stock metaphoric utility. What might such intervention signify? It questions, for one, the plow’s phallic import, its easy availability to symbolize gendered labor—male labor—as the locus of and vehicle to [End Page 215] power, progress, survival, and futurity. Given how patriarchy is so firmly rooted in Ethiopia, disfiguring this icon, and dissociating signifier from signified, is a remarkable gesture. So, too, the gesture to question the way a nationalist idiom has been wrought paternalistically using the tiller and, vicariously, his instruments.
Mekonnen is adept at incorporating these curled points in a range of works. Some works stand out for their sardonic juxtaposition of plow points with other objects, like knife and fork and baking plates; while minimally situated pieces call attention to the already wrought material, a material that’s been cut, grooved, distressed well before Mekonnen transforms it into sculpture. For there are no other referents to support them, such minimalist pieces self-reference their materiality, their rusting hue, their part smooth, part coarse texture. In Enqokelesh, which means riddle, the self-referential effect is particularly acute as Mekonnen serializes his visual element by planting a grid of countless plow-points inside a soil-covered gallery; furthermore, he covers one end of the gallery with a large mirror, extending the grid and serializing the work even further.
Such formal manipulations characterize Mekonnen’s critical enterprise. For, perforating what is whole, twisting what is straight, hanging things upside down, or refracting a single element, all are modes Mekonnen employs to enable a perspective wide enough to accommodate paradox and competing vantage points. As he warps everyday icons, he engenders a perspective rich enough to explore our contemporary contradictions.
Beke, my dear brother, it is such a pleasure to engage in this conversation with you. Let me start by asking you a broad, contextual, and cultural question before turning specifically to your work. If you were to single out the hallmarks of contemporary Ethiopian art, what would they be?
In an era where the politics of modern art, and particularly modern art of the Global South, has intensified, modern Ethiopian art stands in the periphery, unable to emerge from the outside edge of contemporary discourse of modern art. It is imperative that both African and Ethiopian modern art extricate artistic originality from constructions of [End Page 216] Western “exoticism” that have for long framed their context, to a sovereign position where artistic ingenuity can have ownership of its own fate. The necessary support is nevertheless essential for the attainment of this ambition. For instance, if we look at the trajectory of modern Ethiopian art, we find that it had been impoverished of crucial collaborations that would have reinforced its success such as critics, promoters, and critical curators. This impoverishment has not only alienated Ethiopian modern art from the global art world, but has also distanced it from its own people. At times, it has also isolated the artists’ own conscience. Nevertheless, it is important to...