Today we are witnessing a fashionable competition among institutions (globally and locally) to redefine contemporaneity. A race leading to what I would call 'youngism' and symptomatic of the perpetual desire for 'renaissancism'... Sounds of change they say! Looks like everyone wants to reinvent the wheel, as if animated by a 'genuine' desire to be discovering the next artist, the new posture, the fresh attitude and cutting edge gesture.
When preparing this exhibition with Tibebe Terffa — born in 1948 — we remembered his infamous performance : the act of smashing hundreds of colored coffee pots in a public space, ... about twenty years ago. We talked about the popular 16 Young Artists Association of 1973 that he founded back in the day, aiming at staging exhibitions around the country. He told us how influential his mentors and teachers, Skunder Boghossian and Gebre Kristos Desta were to his understanding of the art of painting. We talked about the loss of Yohannes Gedamu, his friend and companion. Tibebe keeps a fresh memory of his experiences as a teacher in Harar and Dire Dawa, finding alternative approaches to art education and mingling and living the 'high life' with the Peace Corps. We addressed the long, arduous and inspiring search Tibebe committed his life to as a painter (he has exhibited worldwide in ARCO, Madrid, Harn Museum, Florida, Washington, and Toronto to name a few and has held numerous solo shows and Open Studio events in Addis Ababa too). In my opinion, from his generation of painters, Tibebe Terffa pays the most elegant tribute to poetry, surrealism, writers such as Sebhat Gebregzabier and jazz musicians like Miles Davis without forgetting his everlasting source of inspiration: the magic walled city of Harar.
I am not saying that Tibebe is the inventor of any kind of painting, nor do I think that anyone -in art- can claim to be any type of originator (who would care anyway beyond the Guinness Book of World Records£). Pioneering into some formal path at most maybe. But the very notion of style in painting depends on its nature, structure, context, approach and performance. Painting is like a living body in need of space and freedom. I do not categorize Tibebe Terffa's paintings; they cannot be classified in any preexisting category. His work is of today without any nostalgia for the past. He is elaborating a language that is not static, and each painting brings forward another phrase to the dialogue. As he often uses an abstract vocabulary, it is necessary not to forget the human emotions that a painting needs.
Tibebe Terffa walked the stones of Harar from an early age, so his introduction to texture, color, movement and lines was not one emanating from the museum, nor from the classical European art. His childhood memories are ones of dislocation, foreign identities, languages, and habits, for they do not have imposed boundaries. Are these memories in his painting or does he paint the memories of paintings?
Tibebe works with light, colors, transparency, opacity, lines, surface, layers. He keeps his work for the very moment he instinctively embraces. Like the writer with his words. His paintings are simple in appearance, with structural lines, large expanses of color, a sensual surface, a muted light surfacing from within the picture plane. The formal issue is a door to access the painting itself. He uses structure as a dynamic force so the eye may journey across the painting's epidermis. It enables him to create rhythms (figures, architectures, masks?), to work the magic numbers, and articulate the notion of time and space. Colors for him can be linked to memory, they can be an emotional field, they can have representative references, or they can be in the realm of the abstract. A vehicle of light. In his work, there are colors of an acid appearance as there are those that are sweet, those that are humid and others that are dry. There are colors that have a calming effect and some that get you all worked up. Some, I find, are entirely glacial while there are certain colors that literally burn your eyes. Tibebe wants to bring colors to certain extremes by pushing them to their limits. Painting is in a certain way a metamorphosis of the painter's body and spirit. I would not say that the surface and texture of Tibebe's painting represents necessarily his body. I would however says that the physical body expresses itself through the painting's surface and texture. I think the sensuality and eroticism of painting often resides within its surface. The experience that Tibebe has had and continues to have with the art he admires the most is an experience he would like to carry though his own work as long as brushes will mediate between the palette and his canvas. For the past forty years, until today and indubitably tomorrow and the day after.
Let's not surrender to amnesia but allow ourselves to look deeply into what modernism truly is.