Robel Temesgen Brings the Protective Spirits of Ethiopia to London
“I wanted these works to be detached from me,” Robel Temesgen said of his latest exhibition at London’s Tiwani Contemporary. Luckily for us, he has succeeded, and in doing so shows something much bigger than himself. Following a celebrated and distinguished video and participatory practice, the young Temesgen (born 1987) has returned to his formal training as a painter to employ a medium perfectly matched to the mystical subject matter of “Adbar.”
Temesgen grew up around adbar—a traditional Ethiopian belief in protective spirits—but, during his lifetime, he has seen it disappear from everyday Ethiopian life. Trees, lakes and people could all embody a spirit and become a gathering place for a community; Tiwani Contemporary is now adbar in London.
The exhibition had to be one of paintings; it is the medium most suited to the subject matter. Not only does it seem as if spirits are drawn into the works, they also radiate fantastic colors and glow. These are the qualities that digital screens and performance documentation just can’t provide. In pieces such as Adbar III (2015) ubiquitous stickered dots, strict, straight lines, and perfect circles offer a detachment of the artist from his work, and the result is captivating. The landscapes Temesgen offers aren’t recognizable and they are just abstract enough to be universal. The key to “Adbar”’s success is precisely this subjective, interpretive quality.
Temesgen is an artist whose practice has garnered many esteemed international fans: Hans Ulrich Obrist and Olafur Eliasson are counted among as admirers. Since his time studying in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, Temesgen has involved himself in not only connecting those close to him in his practice, but also bringing the city’s thriving and vibrant art scene greater international recognition through collaboration. His project Buy Me a Car (begun in 2011) requires 300,000 individuals to each donate one Ethiopian Birr (the equivalent of around $0.05) to buy a car for the artist. The conversations involved have made made it into an ongoing project centered on Ethiopian politics and puts everyone on the same financial plain within a country with great economic divides. Cinema Lada, a mobile projection work—a collaboration between Ethiopian, Russian and German artists—takes an icon positioned between the historic relations among the three countries (the Lada car) and makes epic drives over continents to highlight artistic and political links through cinema.
“Adbar” works with the same concepts, albeit in a very different way. Temesgen has taken a dying vernacular tradition and transported it to London; he has injected a ritualism into his artistic practice and he has produced a community, those that view the works, to preserve an aspect of his national identity. As Hans Ulrich Obrist said of the works, they are “protests against forgetting” but in their mysticism they embody much more than that.
—Jack T N Smurthwaite