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Art from the Horn of Africa Makes Exciting Debut in Sweden

By Jareh Das  |  Stockholm, 14 July 2021

Exhibition view: From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora, CFHILL, Stockholm (10 June–17 August 2021). Courtesy CFHILL and Addis Fine Art.

An intergenerational group exhibition, From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora (10 June–17 August 2021) at the independent art space CFHILL in Stockholm marks the first Scandinavian showcase of artists from this region.

This collaboration with London and Addis Ababa-based Addis Fine Art continues CFHILL's commitment to offering an exhibition platform to international curators, artists, and galleries. Works by 19 artists including sculpture, painting, textiles, video, and photography are shown in five main galleries across two floors, highlighting important artists of Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Sudanese descent spanning the modern era to the present.

A large painting hanging in a white gallery shoes figures dancing and playing trumpets. In the background, the next-door room is visible, and on it a painting of a fragmentary painting of a figure sitting on a stool.

Left to right: Tesfaye Urgessa, Gesicht III (2019); Lulseged Retta, African Jazz (2021). Exhibition view: From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora, CFHILL, Stockholm (10 June–17 August 2021). Courtesy CFHILL and Addis Fine Art.

Among them are two modern masters, and the first graduates of the Allé School of Fine Arts and Design at Addis Ababa University, the oldest art school in East Africa: Lulseged Retta and Tadesse Mesfin, who is also a long-time Allé educator.

Founded by the artist Alle Felege Selam, the Allé School of Fine Arts and Design was the first art school in Ethiopia, and for over six decades has produced an impressive cohort, including seminal text-based painter Wosene Worke Kosrof, Elizabeth Habte Wold, and educator Bekele Mekonnen.

Patches of colour are rendered on a painting on a wall in the gallery space, which sits alongside another painting showing a group of women sitting.

Left to right: Addis Gezehagn, Floating City XX (2020); Tadesse Mesfin, Pillars of Life (2021). Exhibition view: From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora, CFHILL, Stockholm (10 June–17 August 2021). Courtesy CFHILL and Addis Fine Art.

Works by Retta and Mesfin are included in the first of four sections that organise the show chronologically and thematically: 'The Modernists', which looks at the first graduates of the Allé School of Fine Arts and Design in the 1970s.

Retta's figurative acrylic on canvas painting Setate (2010) shows two women cooking in rich saturated hews; and Mesfin's Pillars of Life: Patience II (2020) is a striking portrait of Ethiopian women in the marketplace—part of an ongoing series celebrating women working as small-holder vendors in Ethiopian cities.

A darkened gallery space shows a lit up metallic totem, along with a painting of street vendors and to the far left, an abstract painting of bars of red, pink, yellow, and green.

Left to right: Tegene Kunbi, Red Panther (2021); Lulseged Retta, Setate (2010); Tsedaye Makonnen, Senait & Makonnen, The Peacemaker & The Comforter I (2019). Exhibition view: From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora, CFHILL, Stockholm (10 June–17 August 2021). Courtesy CFHILL and Addis Fine Art.

'The Contemporary' is the largest section, with mid-career artists who emerged in the 2000s, with many former students/mentees of Mesfin, including Addis Gezehagn, Merikokeb Berhanu, Tesfaye Urgessa, and Ermias Kifleyesus.

Urgessa's expressive paintings are rooted in his childhood and memories as a young man in Ethiopia, but also draw from his encounters with both German Neo-expressionism and the School of London through his travels abroad. Wandering Man (2019) depicts a black, partially abstracted figure contorted atop a stool, giving equal emphasis to the figure as well as the background composition's play of colour, light, and shadow.

A group of women at a marketplace, with baskets balanced on their heads, takes up one wall in a white gallery space.

Tadesse Mesfin, Pillars of Life: Patience II (2020). Exhibition view: From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora, CFHILL, Stockholm (10 June–17 August 2021). Courtesy CFHILL and Addis Fine Art.

'The Diaspora' brings together second-generation immigrants living in Europe and the U.S.A., including Tariku Shiferaw, Helina Metaferia, and Atong Atem, all in their twenties, who reflect on the hybridity of diasporic lives. Atem's afrofuturist photographs created in the past year, such as Eva in Green and Ruth with Veil (both 2020), comment on an identity politics rooted between tradition and contemporaneity.

From Modern to Contemporary does not stake a claim as the definitive overview of artists working in this region or its diaspora; rather, it offers long-overdue insight on key developments in the region and across its diaspora over 50 years.

Similarly, Metaferia's fantastic headshot collages Headdress XX and XIX (both 2021) celebrate the overlooked histories of BIPOC women's labour within activism, and the generational impact of civil rights eras of the past on today's social justice movements. Archival imagery, including Black Panther newspapers and civil rights era photographs, are amalgamated into crowns of adornment upon portraits she has photographed of women who are involved in contemporary liberation movements.

A series of three paintings hang on a wall in the gallery space, one depicting two entangled lovers alongside an abstract painting in shades of black and white, and a pink and black-hued painting of a figure sitting on a stool.

Let to right: Tesfaye Urgessa, Gesicht III (2019); Ermias Kifleyesus, Photo of Lost Possibilities (2018); Selome Muleta, Tsédal XI (2020). Exhibition view: From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora, CFHILL, Stockholm(10 June–17 August 2021). Courtesy CFHILL and Addis Fine Art.

In one of the ground-floor galleries, Ethiopian-American artist Tsedaye Makonnen's totemic, pillar-like light-emitting sculpture Senait & Nahom, The Peacemaker & The Comforter I (2019) is in conversation with the artist's Astral Sea IV (2019), a deep blue cape adorned with hundreds of laser-cut mirror pieces drawing from Ethiopian Coptic cross motifs.

The cloak is activated when worn by Tsedaye in her performance art, which is a total body of work that explores the transhistorical forced migrations of Black people globally. The cape faces Tariku Shiferaw's Sky Walker (Miguel) (2021), a densely layered painting of thick, differently coloured bars against a sky-blue ground.

A gallery space shows a blue-hued painting of a female figure running in the moonlight, being chased by hooded figures.

Left to right: Daniela Yohannes, Ontological Terror (2021); Atong Atem, Eva in Green (2020). Exhibition view: From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora, CFHILL, Stockholm (10 June–17 August 2021). Courtesy CFHILL and Addis Fine Art.

In the final thematic section 'Emerging Artists', a new guard of exciting female artists living in the continent and as part of the diaspora range from Selome Muleta's figurative explorations of femininity and intimacy; Tizta Berhanu's abstract renderings of emotive gestures; and Yasmeen Abdullah's humanistic depictions influenced by the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish.

A standout presentation is the grouping of works by Adiskidan Ambaye, Daniela Yohannes, Atong Atem, and Selome Muleta, which creates a compelling space of intimacy, with representations eliciting imaginations of the future.

A painting varying in shades from deep to light blue shows a naked female figure running into flames, being chased by small creatures with pointed caps.

Daniela Yohannes, Ontological Terror (2021). Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Addis Fine Art.

Muleta's photographic acrylic and oil pastel portrait Tsédal XXI (2021) is drawn from the artist's series that depicts women in her life posing inside fictive interiors; while Yohannes' Ontological Terror (2021) meditates on alternative and mythological Black realities through the vision of a nude, light blue female figure in flight, surrounded by blue flames against a deep blue, dreamlike landscape.

An abstract, curved sculpture is placed on a plinth in the gallery space.

Left to right: Adiskidan Ambaye, Liberty (2019); Tesfaye Urgessa, VUPs VII (2019). Exhibition view: From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora, CFHILL, Stockholm (10 June–17 August 2021). Courtesy CFHILL and Addis Fine Art.

Ambaye, the only other sculptor on view alongside Makonnen, is a welcome inclusion with contorted wooden sculptures created from gestural drawings. Liberty (2019) and Queen of Sheba (2020) appear as if they were moulded from a single block but are composed of handcrafted smaller slices of plywood fused to form the whole, the surface carefully sanded and smoothed by the artist. Ambaye likens this process to the way an eraser rids drawings of errors while sketching.

An abstract, curved wooden sculpture is placed on a plinth in the gallery space. To the right of it, there is a black and white abstract painting, made up of stacked bars of colour.

Left to right: Adiskidan Ambaye, Queen of Sheba (2020); Tariku Shiferaw, Get Me Home (Foxy Brown) (2020). Exhibition view: From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora, CFHILL, Stockholm (10 June–17 August 2021). Courtesy CFHILL and Addis Fine Art.

The curatorial thesis adopted by the exhibition's organisers, Addis Fine Art's co-founders, Rakeb Sile and Mesai Haileleul, situates the nuances, interconnectedness, and cultural specificities pertinent to artists from this part of the continent. 'Africa is a complex and diverse continent', they note. 'The term "African art" is often used as a shorthand for art produced in certain regions of a continent of over a billion people.'

They add: 'Regional specificity matters, hence why we decided to group the Horn of Africa for this exhibition as each country that makes up this part of the continent shares certain ethnic, religious, and cultural similarities.'

a painting of a crouched figure holding a sword is showing in the gallery space.

Left to right: Girma Berta, Moving Shadows II, VII (2017); Girmachew Getnet, Circle V (2021). Exhibition view: From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora, CFHILL, Stockholm (10 June–17 August 2021). Courtesy CFHILL and Addis Fine Art.

Ethiopia presents a compelling case in exploring nuances of the region due to its unique history as a country that was never colonised but was occupied by Italy for approximately five years, developing a counternarrative to the singular view of modernism coming to the continent through colonial contact.

East Africans—in particular Somalis and Eritreans—are among Sweden's largest immigrant communities. From Modern to Contemporary does not stake a claim as the definitive overview of artists working in this region or its diaspora; rather, it offers long-overdue insight on key developments in the region and across its diaspora over 50 years.

An abstract painting hangs next to a window in the gallery space.

Merikokeb Berhanu, Untitled LV (2021). Exhibition view: From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora, CFHILL, Stockholm (10 June–17 August 2021). Courtesy CFHILL and Addis Fine Art.

Organisers hope the show will resonate with the sizable East African population in Stockholm to see themselves, their culture, and their beliefs represented. 'We are excited to hear feedback from members of this community on the exhibition,' say Sile and Haileleul.

Co-organiser and CFHILL's co-founder Michael Elmenbeck adds: 'Eritreans are one of the largest diaspora groups of Africa descendant in Sweden, and if we can showcase cultural objects that so many are able to connect to in different ways, the exhibition has fulfilled its purpose.'

Left to right: Tegene Kunubi, Blue Panther (2021); Addis Gezehagn, White Floating Tower III (2019). Exhibition view: From Modern to Contemporary: Artists from the Horn of Africa and Diaspora, CFHILL, Stockholm (10 June–17 August 2021). Courtesy CFHILL and Addis Fine Art.

The result is a cross-temporal presentation that eschews definitive conclusions in order to open up starting points for further research, critical reflections, and interest in art from the Horn of Africa. It is an exciting proposition that one hopes will contribute not only to developing communities, but to the developing histories of East African art, opening up a deserved critical perspective on the region. —[O]

The gallery is currently closed to the public until 9 August. Private views are available upon request.

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