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.


  1. good chat, ideas, views. congratulations!

  2. a good chat,ermias.i discovered this blog myself today.