Born in 1987 in Ethiopia, Robel Temesgen received an MFA from Tromsø Academy of Contemporary Art, University of Tromsø, Norway in 2015, and a BFA in Fine Art (Painting) from Addis Ababa University in 2010. He is currently taking part in the Junge Akademie Program of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, and is a resident artist at IASPIS, Stockholm, the Swedish Art Grants Committee’s International Programme for Visual and Applied Arts. Temesgen’s work has been exhibited at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin (2016), Kurant Visningsrom, Tromsø (2015), Addis International Video Art Festival, Addis Ababa (2015), Art Future/Future Signs, Riga (2015), RomeAfrica Film Festival, Rome (2015), Lumen Festival, New York (2015), Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2014) and Modern Art Museum/Gebre Kristos Desta Center, Addis Ababa (2013). He currently lives and works in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Robel Temesgen’s paintings and works on paper transport the viewer into sacred spaces imbued with spiritual significance. Following extensive research in Ethiopia, he strives through a phenomenological approach to depict the lived experience of landscape in the context of the Ethiopian belief of 'adbar' and its associated rituals. As such, Temesgen explains that his paintings offer “what could be considered a ‘realist’ approach to the narrative that exists within the mental landscape”. In Amharic, the term 'adbar' refers to the embodiment of protective spirits within various elements of the natural landscape, such as lakes, mountains, rocks or trees. Temesgen grew up in Dessie, North-east Ethiopia, where adbar is commonly practised.
The works depict shimmering fantastical landscapes in Temesgen’s characteristic symbolic, lyrical style, and vary greatly in scale, with the largest paintings measuring over five metres in length. Suspended from the ceiling and presented as floating rolls of paper partially covering the floor, their appearance recalls Chinese scroll paintings or Ethiopian healing scrolls.
The paintings display a luminescence achieved through the use of enamel, spray paint and acrylic on high-gloss paper. They depict water, land and air in various states of fusion and transformation – turbulent or calm, bathed in a surreal, scintillating light. These ethereal landscapes are patterned with soft-coloured nebulous haloes and areas of pointillist detail. The blur of spray paint contrasts with an intermittently miniaturist approach, evoking an element of the sublime in nature, which can bring joy, comfort, fear and torment in equal measure.
Temesgen is looking beyond existing painting traditions to work towards developing a visual language for the spiritual. Challenging the linear approach and avoiding the earthly pattern of ground-sun-sky, elements of the paintings serve to compete and complement each other to lift the visual experience from the conventional into a non-stablised, open composition. Temesgen juxtaposes roughly executed sections with delicate, detailed areas to create a sense of the departure into an unknown landscape, with an arrangement designed to focus the eye in a circular, rotating movement.
Among the latest works, 'Sacredscape II' (2016) was inspired by the megalithic stelae at Mushira Dingay - small sacred rock formations that are anthropomorphic, phallic, rectangular and circular in shape, and are commonly known as ‘bride stones’. Rituals are still held at the site to this day, centred around a story of a bridal party turned to stone, including even a horse. It is believed that just the utterance of this story turns the small rocks into a vast mountain. The piece also refers to the recent deaths at the Irecha religious festival in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, in early October 2016. The flowers carried by the young people heading to the festival, in which the Oromo people welcome spring, were to become a memorial to the dead.
'Sacredscape III' (2016) depicts a sacred tree. Trees possessing adbar are strictly protected and believed to act as a link between people and the spirit world. They can serve as shelter, places of worship and meeting points around which to discuss community matters. However, the tree’s physical form, as visible to the living and the rational mind, becomes merely the tip of the iceberg. The tree blends into a starry cosmos in the upper-right of the painting – acting as a bridge between the physical and the metaphorical. At the base is the tree’s root, symbol and source of the strength of the adbar phenomenon.