Saturday, March 29, 2008

E R I T R E A: sketches of a trip
Issayas Tesfamariam

Note: This series has an introduction and five sketches. A total of six postings. This is ...

Sketch Two

On the second week of my stay, I was notified that one of the steam-engine trains that have been meticulously renovated by Eritrean retired engineers, was going to Arbe-Robu’e. I picked up my digital video and still cameras and went to Ferrovia, as the train station in Asmara is known. We took off from the station with four or five wagons pulled by the main train engine. Each wagon has its own brake person. By the time we left the station was around 10 AM. The sound of the chu-chu train reminded me of the song by the South African Jazz musician, Hugh Maskela, who sang about the train that takes workers from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Botswana to the gold mines of South Africa, but the big difference was that the sound of this chu-chu train was a sound of joy whereby after sitting idly for over forty years, the steam engine trains were resurrected from the junkyard by the highly talented former employees of Ferrovia who at the time of independence of Eritrea were in their late 70 and 80s. The ride was amazing. Looking at the train meandering like a snake along the steeply winding rail line, going into and coming out of tunnels is a must for every Eritrean. Looking through the window and get the feeling that one is suspended in the air is fun, exhilarating, joyful and exciting all at once. Once we got to our destination, the front engine was disengaged from the first wagon and reversed to be attached to the last wagon so that the journey of going up the mountains and back to Asmara begins. For the steam engine train, Arbe-Robu’e, serves as a water refilling station. At the station in Arbe-Robu’e a group of about 10 people who were friends and family members of a newly-wed couple entered the wagons to take pictures. Going up the mountains is as fascinating as going down the mountains. We returned to Asmara chuchu-ing around 2:00 PM. I thought it was an amazing trip until…..

A Ride in the Clouds

picture courtesy of Yared Teseggai.

Two days after the aforementioned, a group of about 20 German train enthusiasts came directly from the airport to the Asmara train station, having arrived at 4:00 AM flight from Cairo, Egypt, to go to Arbe-Robu’e on a 6:00 AM train ride. The morning was foggy. Some of the workers at the train station were dumbfounded to see a group of tourists going for a ride without resting or going to their hotel. This is the kind of enthusiasm that Eritrea generates! This tour had, as I found out later, an advantage than my previous trip because the tourists can request the train conductor and the coordinators to stop at any spot and ask the conductor to go forward, backward, come through a tunnel, etc. To do that, all the tourists would exit the train and run to the nearest hill to catch the best shot. The German tourists had all kinds of camera and video gear. The fog that morning was incredible. The train piercing through the clouds and chu-chuing down to Arbe-Robu’e was like riding in the clouds. I call the ride that morning the “Arbe-Robu’e Express”. We returned to Asmara around 11:30 AM to jump on a Litorina (a FIAT diesel engine train, which can hold about forty people) which I called “Janus of the trains” because of its double headed face. Again, a retired train conductor took us down back to Arbe-Robu’e with a young man as his co-conductor. By this time the fog had cleared away, but the trip was as spectacular as the previous ones with the steam engine train. At the end of the trip which ended around 2:00 PM, I had a total of 3 hours of incredible video footage of the journey. Even though the German tourists had reserved the steam engine train for the entire week so that they can travel to Massawa and back, I left the train station to get ready for my next trip to go to Kohaito, a most spectacular scenery and archeologically rich site in Eritrea with the first and foremost archeologist of Eritrea, Dr. Yosef Lebsekal, who is the director of the National Museum of Eritrea.

German tourists (train enthusiasts) relaxing .

Next: Kohaito: Archaeologically rich site in Eritrea.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

E R I T R E A: sketches of a trip
Issayas Tesfamariam

Sketch One
After spending a couple of days with family members, I discussed with the director of Research and Documentation Center (RDC), Mrs. Azeb Tewolde, as to how to follow up on the previous projects that were started. I also checked the various documents and suggested various ways to preserve them. Every time I visit the RDC, I am flabbergasted by the wealth of documents archived there. For example, in the Ethiopian Collection, there are files of Ethiopian security reports on the activities of Idris Hamid Awate, reports of activities and lists of students during the Federation Era. There are also reports of the Ethiopian Consulate in Kassala reporting on the activities of Eritreans in Kassala in the 1960’s and much, much more.
During my first week stay in Asmara, I met my friend Senai Woldeab, a young Eritrean attorney (see his interview on my blog). He also introduced me to his group of friends who are highly talented and professional young people who are helping Eritrea in various capacities such as doctors, accountants, geologists, chemists, advisors to ministries, etc. I am glad to report that I see the future of Eritrea in these and other young people and the future looks great. One of the young people that I met, Dr. Bereket Tewolde, is a chemist and he is involved in collecting data of the various plants and their medicinal applications in traditional care and analyzing them scientifically (check out my blog: for the upcoming conversation with this young brilliant chemist soon). Dr.Bereket has come up with perfume extracted from chomer (Ocimum) plant.
I saw some of the research that these young people did on their own( some pictures are provided below). For example, they researched, interviewed the descendants and documented in a video documentary about the people who were involved in the translation of the bible to Tigrigna. They also produced pamphlets, brochures and calendars. It must be noted here that the first Tigrigna bible took 66 years to translate. The translation is a milestone because the impact of this translation on the development of Tigirgna and its literature is very substantial. Among the many prominent pioneers in Tigrigna literature were Aboi Woldeab Woldemariam (Welwel).
I also heard a lot of other research that they are doing such as the story of Mr. Zere Bekit, who traveled to Italy (by foot through Sudan, Alexandria, Egypt, and from there by ship to Italy) in 1909. After he arrived in Italy he became a business owner in the middle of Rome during First World War! Mr. Zere Bekit returned to Eritrea in 1916 during Italian colonialism and wrote an autobiography of his odyssey!
On the weekend of my first week stay in Asmara, I filmed the family (about 10 people) of the first Eritrean pilot. He received his pilot’s license in 1928 in Italy! What a fascinating story! You have to wait for my documentary on this story.

Keshi Teweldemedhin G/medhin one of the translators at the age of 20. Keshi Teweldemedhin G/Medhin spoke twelve languages.

Keshi Teweldemehdin G/medhin's original translations.

Interview with Wzr. Aberash Yehdego, the widow of Aboi Woldeab Woldemariam.

The late Aboi Woldeab Woldemariam and his wife, Wzr. Aberash Yehdego.

Young Eritrean scholars ( including a Georgetown University law graduate) learning at the feet of Eritrean elders.

Interview with Keshi Musa Aron.

Next on Eritrea: sketches of a trip: Ride in the Clouds.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

E R I T R E A:
sketches of a trip.


I returned to Eritrea on my regular negdet (annual pilgrimage) from December 28th 2007 through January 18th 2008. I went back to film more footage for my Eritrea DVD project in order to fill the gaps which I felt were needed from my previous trip in August 2006. As a result of the previous trip a picture book entitled “Eritrea: Colors in Motion” was produced. Also, a DVD entitled “ASMARA: City of Radiance” is on its final stages. In this trip, my colleagues from the Audio Visual Institute of Eritrea (AVIE) and I filmed over 11 hours of footage. I would like to express a heartfelt appreciation for my colleagues at AVIE for the success of the previous and this latest trip, and to Dr.Yosef Lebsekal and the National Museum of Eritrea for their incredible support in helping us film in the spectacular archeological sites at Kohaito.

Here are brief essay sketches of my trip.


Two days after I arrived in Eritrea from Texas, after visiting my family there, 2008 was approaching fast and was staring me in the face. Fighting against my jet lag, it did not take me long to agree to an invitation by my friends who were going to hang out at Hidmona, a traditional restaurant/night club at the Expo ground in Asmara on New Year’s Eve. The place was packed to capacity, to the point where the people who were sitting in the two adjacent rooms of the restaurant were asked to dance in turns. The traditional band played various traditional, modern, revolutionary songs to the delight of the audience all night long. At midnight, champagne bottles were popped heralding the year 2008. Since I went from the US, my friends on my table believed that I was best qualified, or was it that they were being courteous of my guest status, to open the bottle of champagne. To their disappointment and to my chagrin, I was still struggling to open the bottle at 12:05 AM. With some help from competent people, I was finally able to pop up the bottle. With that ritual accomplished, we danced the night away! Despite the late opening of the champagne, my visit became very productive, compacted, educational, informative, as you will read in the sketches of my trip to be continued in the upcoming articles.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A conversation with artist and poet Ermias Ekube

“For my work is a manifestation of my intellectual and existential
behavior, I need both concentration and relaxation. Concentration
is sitting for the work and relaxation is playing on it”. Ermias Ekube

Issayas:Can you tell us about yourself?

Ermias Ekbue: I was born and brought up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,
where I studied art at Addis Ababa Fine Arts College, which was
a social-realism school at that time, and graduated in painting,
in1990. I practiced art in my private studio, studying and
experimenting on modern art techniques and concepts, for seven
years with two other friends. After my first and last one man show
in Addis Ababa, in 1997, I came to Eritrea to exhibit my works.
Since then I have been teaching art and exhibiting my works
in the country.

Issayas: Let me start with Cezan's drawing of you.
What does Cezan mean?

Ermias: I call my son Cezan, not my self, because Cézanne,
one of the post impressionist artists, and called the father of modern art,
is one of my heros, and his name sounds good and simple.
Though it is French, I made it simpler and shorter the written form of the
name.My daughter’'s name is Iris, the flower, the colored part of the eye;
and in Dutch it means the color purple. And more, back to the Greeks,
it is the name of a messenger goddess.

Issayas: What does art mean to any society? And why do we need art?

Ermias: This is a very difficult question. But simply, Art is one of the major
knowledge of humanity. And since a human being is mainly a spiritual being
than other beings, perhaps that is why man’s life is more complicated than
other animals. The role of art, for me, is to feed a spiritual hunger,
and enhance beauty among people and societies, and reflect the soul of
existence in the mirror of Life.

Issayas: There is a tendency for parents to encourage their children
to study the sciences etc., but not the art why do you think that is?

Ermias: I understand the feeling both as a responsible parent and a
practicing artist. It is about uncertainty of life. A parent prefers to take
a risk for him or herself than on the future of his or her child. I think
most people know intuitively that an artist is out of the safe zone
of life, and the life of a real artist is unpredictable. Most of us
always want to plan the rest of our lives out of here and now,
but the artist lives right now and here. And so on…

Issayas: What kind of style is your art considered?

Ermias: I don’t believe in having a style or category. Every moment
I feel, I suffer, I think, I play, I love and I live, and I realize my
existence then I paint or write, that is all. But I know how I started
practicing art. I know what styles I experimented with in the past,
which is as an experience as my life’s experience. Basically,
in my school period, I used to follow the social-realistic school,
and impressionism, and out of school I have studied abstract
expressionism and other modern and post modern schools, and
different literary and philosophical theses. To follow all these
schools is meaningless, but to be inspired by different art
techniques, concepts and mediums is natural as your reaction
to any thing else in your life. Slowly and without a perceptive I
started falling in to oblivion of all those established aesthetic
criteria. And still I can see all my past tendencies in my works.
But I must be free from all these junk ideas and let my self
flow in my works. Don’t you think so?

Issayas: What are the inspirations for your work?

Ermias: LIFE! Basically my own life and lives around me. I think
I am not able to know beyond my surrounding, EVERYTHING that is
else where is here too, of course the articulation and the form varied
from culture to culture. My surrounding is my universe. This universe
of mine, perhaps, is decorated by invited aliens from other universes
through books, music, films, news, other works of arts, etc…ha!

Issayas: What struck me the most at your home is that you use
locally found materials and use them artistically. For example, the
numbers of fernellos (traditional stove) stack up like a tower adorn
the main door, the bed frames, etc. What do they mean to you?

Ermias: The found-object works are part of my universe. Let us quote
from a brochure of the exhibition ‘Frames of Consciousness’, 2008,
about this idea:

A story of object-personified

I try to assemble histories of objects (old and forgotten) to tell or retell
stories. Though the history of an object is factual and absolute it is not
really known but tells deferent stories to a soul or a mind that is able
to see the hidden light of the object in a new historical spot. Choice
and selection of an object is very much personal and an intuitive
fortune (but not an accident) that clicks the collective mental and
emotional experiences of the artist. You may not know what texture,
color or form of the object stands to what idea, feeling or concept
but it becomes a poetic object.

All the marks of time on the selected object tell of stories that
would be retold by every individual beholder; assembling different
objects change the stories again and again in the un-given mind
set and a given time and space.

History of an object-example:

·Made of (wood, metal etc.)
·Made by (a carpenter, a carver, a smith etc.)
·Owned by (a poor, a rich, a criminal, a woman, etc.)
·Stayed in (a house, a church, a garage, etc.)
·Functioned as (as table, as fork, a fence, no function at all etc.)
·How old (1, 3, 6, 7years, 37.345 years etc.)

To say something about these two pieces:
The fernellos are meant to be a tower entitled, ‘My tower, your
tower of day and night’. It is long back I came with the idea of
fernello as a tower.I got the image almost as it is in medeber,
perhaps with less number vertically. It is to represent small houses
shelved on a hill, which is a common scene all over Eritrea
(the number of the fernellos is 9) and the day and night idea
is the cycle of life begin from a day. And the idea of fire
represents basic energy of life which is derived from my nostalgia
of childhood siting beside my mother cooking on the fernelo. Etc…
The bed frame is found at a friend’s house. I had almost finished
the idea as immediate as I saw it. It took me only sometime to
fix extra elements and put some personal touches.
And the title is ‘Adam and Eve- perhaps in bed’.

Issayas: In a lot of your paintings, you use fanus (lantern), donkeys
and ladders. What are the symbolisms of the aforementioned?

Ermias: Most of my works tend to be poetic- symbolic.
I mean, not literally, represent infinite ideas and feelings with
few images that brought from my life’s vision and surroundings.
So I am not sure about the exact meanings. The symbolism of
objects and signs could be repeated here and there like syllables
but changes ideas or feelings contextually. But symbols such
as ladder, or wheels represent more or less constant ideas and
concepts with varied context.

Issayas: Are the messages that an artist sends to the society

Ermias: Regarding my experience of reacting with great works
of art, art doesn’t have a message, but inspires or provokes the
established ways of seeing towards life and nature of an individual
or a society. But if it sends a message, that is only through the
interpretation of the beholder.

Issayas: When did you become a poet?

Issayas: I used to participate in art clubs in my elementary
school period and but later in the art school I start to read and
study poems by friends and other famous local and international
poets and slowly begun to write my own.

Issayas: Do poetry and painting go together as a visual and
audio medium? Poetry is written for the ear and painting
is "written" for the eye?

Ermias: As I mentioned to you, when I started studying poetry
I found a very similar nature between art and poetry, except the
medium as object. But, for me, both play a visual role on the
imagination. A good painting is which makes you
see and listen and the same to a poem, it makes you listen
and see at same time. Both, beyond the medium they use,
write on the musical- visual- tactile- imagination of the beholder.

Issayas: Which ones are your favorite paintings and poem?

Ermias: Frankly speaking, I really don’t have a favorite painting or
poem. Of course I level my works in many ways: some give a new
light to the next consistent process, some strongly talk to many
people, some vibrate a kind of personal depth which never
happened to the previous works, and some reflect a new vivid
technical approach appeal to many eyes and so on. When most
of these behaviors happened in a single work, then that is
a master piece. But I don’t know which one is that among my
works or if I have done it yet.
Walking thoughts
Hasten to take a rest
In walking notebooks;
Haunting dreams
Captured on canvas
In clay or in stones;

Optical philosophies
Melt on paper
With analyzed light;
All these strange,
Transformed creatures
Are called ‘Works of Art’
 Erimias Ekube 

Issayas: Ermias, thank you for your time.

Ermias: Thanks.

Ermias resides in Asmara, Eritrea with his wife and children.