At the age of just 32, Ethiopian artist Etiyé Dimma Poulsen has had a string of exhibitions over the last three years in both Europe and Africa, where she is represented by the Mam Gallery in Douala. She had difficulty in starting out, however, doing the rounds of the Parisian galleries in vain. They kept pointing her in the direction of the « African » shops where her sculptures sat awkwardly with the copies of ancient masks and craft objects for tourists. It was finally through ceramist galleries, and notably the renowned Capazza art gallery in Nançay, south of the Paris region, that she finally managed to impose her fascinating clay and iron figures.
Laid on a long wooden table or directly on the ground, Etiyé Dimma Poulsen’s sculptures, whatever their size, are only stood upright once they are finished. They are all made on the same frame, wrapped in a kind of wire netting held up by a steel reinforcement bar and covered in a thin layer of clay. The young woman always sculpts bodies with small heads, which she clothes in natural pigments in shades of ochre, red, beige, brown or blue.
Next comes what she considers to be the most exciting stage of her work: the firing and the moment her figures come out of the kiln where they bake at a thousand degrees. After being fired, the sculptures appear to be animated with a strange life-like quality that seems to amaze the woman behind them as much as it does the public. « The moment my figures come out of the kiln is always a discovery for me. I never know how they are going to come out. Fire is a creative element which models my sculptures whilst also bringing them to life« . Fascinated by this element which plays on her work and gives it its finishing touches, the young woman embraces the random contribution it makes to her creations. If in life she needs solid and structured references, Etiyé likes things to escape her a little in her work. « There are sometimes pieces I like a lot whose pieces explode in the kiln. Once the initial surprise has worn off, I realize that the fire was right. The face that comes out hollowed may well be different to the one I originally sculpted, but it is often more beautiful. Some bodies lose a layer of clay that was in fact superfluous. The fire is like a mentor that corrects my sculptures’failings and erases the unnecessary traits I might add ».
Once the sculptures are removed from the kiln, the work undergoes a birthing ritual. The sculpture is covered in sawdust before being washed down with water. These are sacred moments for the sculptor, in which the alchemy of the clay, the pigments and the heat reveal the work in a smoky and steamy atmosphere, bringing it forth it in a symbolic delivery.
The first sculpture was born by chance ten years ago when Etiyé was playing with a piece of wire mesh that she shaped into a cone. Later covered in clay and fired using a firing technique she learnt from the sculptor Michel Moglia, the little piece of wire mesh was thereby transformed into the first of this series of mysterious people which comprise Etiyé Dimma Poulsen’s work. Since then, she has not stopped developing and refining her creative approach whilst maintaining her first sculpture’s slender silhouette. Eityé is interested in the infinite variations of bodies and expressions, which can be found in each of her figures. Even though she willing admits that some of these share « a family resemblance », they are ultimately all very different from one another. The essence of her approach resides in these multiple variations on a same theme that can be declined infinitely. « Far from being a hindrance, this forces me to find variations in a limited range, and it is in this respect that I have learnt the most« . In Etiyé’s work, the silhouettes are simple, dismembered, and free of all artifice. The eyes are formed by a simple line, which gives the face a distant, mysterious gaze that stares both at an unknown horizon and an unappeased past.
The artist’s career – she prefers to be referred to as « someone who does » rather than artist – was initially frustrated by an unsuccessful debut in painting. Etiyé started oil painting in Denmark where, influenced by Emile Nolde’s work, she painted northern sky and earth landscapes. As she did not get into the Copenhagen College of Fine Arts, she enrolled in the History of Art faculty where the analysis and theory petrified her. Then came a period of doubt and frustration during which the desire to create remained very strong. Along with the university, she frequented museums where she who was already sensitive to willowy silhouettes became addicted to Giacometti’s sculptures. « The fact of seeing strong works gave me energy, and that is what made me want to create, even if a the time, people made me feel that there was no place for my paintings. It is painful and frustrating to leave something that comes from your innermost self in the void. I stopped painting, and this frustration probably fuelled my desire to express myself which perhaps then translated itself in my sculptures« .
She still has memories of the villages, sunsets and the « drawn-out silhouettes » of her African childhood, a mixture of images of Ethiopia which she left at the age of six and Tanzania and Kenya where she lived with her adoptive Danish family until the age of fourteen before going to live in Denmark. It was on arrival in France eight years later that Etiyé discovered the African arts in Paris at the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie and at the Musée Dapper. Even though she recognizes that the « arts premiers » may inspire the presentation of her sculptures, they are as much inspired by the Oceanic arts as the African arts, notably Aborigine art. « My work has affinities with certain African arts, but at the same time, that doesn’t mean anything. Slender forms have always appealed to me. Maybe they echo childhood images, but you cannot attach this formal experimentation to one culture or another. It is true that the cracked surface of my sculptures is similar to what can be found in Africa in the mud houses whose texture is cracked and dried by the sun, but that is no reason to call me an African artist. It doesn’t mean anything! »
Graced with the wealth of several lives, Etiyé Dimma Poulsen does not want to limit herself to a fragment of life, clutching onto an origin, a nationality, or a function: « some people want to see me as Danish, others as Ethiopian, others as a sculptor, and others as a potter. The range is large, I have several families, and each one corresponds to what I am« .
Today, the artist is undergoing a stage of research and reflection. She is animated by the desire and the need to experiment with new materials, notably bronze for her sculptures and wood for painting, which she has never totally abandoned. « I can no longer paint as I used to paint before. I am obviously influenced by my sculpture research. I try to include a few elements in my paintings in which I work more in terms of a play on forms and colours than on a specific subject« . She has already started painting on wood that is heated, burnt, blistered by fire, the founding element of her work. She is determined to experiment with this in her pictorial work, even if she claims not yet to have managed to make the link between her sculpture and her painting.
These are the eternal questionings of a sensitive, constantly doubting artist who, despite growing recognition, is still amazed to have found a public. A fine revenge for she who dared not imagine herself an artist, considering it too fine for her, she who marvels at the fact that her dream be shared by others: « I do little things. Who needs them? »
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