Words and Images of Kebedech Tekleab

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My first experiences with Kebedech Tekleab left an indelible impression in my mind. She had recently arrived in the United States and had recommenced her art studies. As I had modeled professionally in the past, I offered to sit for her. During quiet Friday afternoons I passed silent hours as she painted my portrait. I looked forward to these times, as I would never have taken these moments otherwise-to merely sit, reflect, think and muse. One day, Kebedech stated that she was planning to work on a project that required an engagement in more strenuous activity. Then she told me her story, of the years that she endured as a civilian internee in a concentration camp in Somalia. She wanted to visualize those experiences in her paintings as a research project under the mentorship of renowned artist, Skunder Boghossian. The imaging would depict the torture and brutal physical punishment that the prisoners endured on a daily basis. As I reenacted the physical exercises, I attempted to hide the grimaces that were provoked from the pain that I experienced. Kebedech immediately suggested that I halt the exercises. Weary, but fascinated, I insisted on continuing as I thought: could I not tolerate a bit of discomfort for a few minutes as prisoners had to endure for hours on end or risk further punishment? The sketches became the study for her Punishment Series as part of the visualization of her thesis project: « Humanity In Descent: Visual Images Of Human Suffering. » And thus began a fascinating encounter with artist Kebedech Tekleab.

People from the Two Worlds
It is very good that you are asking me this question. I have never really talked about my perception of time before. And yet, during her confinement it seems that she had all the time in the world to think about time. It became the leitmotif of a poem that she wrote and rewrote for months and years in her head and on whatever material she could find: I did deal with the concept of time in poetry, I rewrote it four times when in prison because I kept losing it. Any form of written material was illegal, so I used to write my poems on cardboard. From time to time we would get medicine from outside, packages of medicine in containers. I peeled off the cardboard and wrote on it. Sometimes one may be able to get pencils. There was an underground school and the soldiers became interested in education and brought materials. I hid my writings, usually on the roof; there it was very closed and unreachable, covered with dead leaves. The writings would remain there for months or years, finding them would be a matter of luck; sometimes they would be lost or eaten by mice. I wrote this poem three or four times, the beginning of the poem dealt with time-my mother and me and the time between us. I did so by repeating words, until one notices that it is taking so long. Poetry perhaps lends itself to my concept of time:
Years pushing years, years pushing months, months pushing weeks, weeks pushing days, days pushing minutes, minutes pushing seconds. That second is the time of departure from my mother
-we were, people from the two worlds.

The monotony of sameness, the humdrum of timelessness, as everything was identical to the second, minute, hour, day before. Psychologically-after a while time became one wide long connected space. I was traveling through that space without making any significant stop in my journey to look back and know where I was. Visually-I considered time as a space, a wide space that I can walk on and when I walked I did not think I had made significant stops to realize the situation, instead I continued walking. After several years I was no longer willing to recognize years or dates, I wanted simply, to leave. Nonetheless, whether you wanted to or not, you would know. Some of us were time conscious, some were very good at keeping dates, knowing time, recognizing holidays that we did not celebrate, yet I was not interested, perhaps I was not willing to acknowledge it-because there was so many years, I did not want to know.
It was one long journey, one long lapse in my mind. Though I have not dealt with it in my painting, time continued to roll, and I moved along with it. I see a horizon from the beginning to the end because life was the same everyday-same food, same treatment, same activities. The texture remains the same, perhaps a bit fuzzier or deeper, sometimes worse, sometimes better.

Upon her release from prison, Kebedech wanted to catch up on every second that she had missed during those past ten years. She wanted to know about everything that happened during every minute of every day. She wanted to make up for all the lost moments when she was only able to create in her head and in hidden, cautious spaces. In the same way, this rendezvous with time evoked a mixture of fear and joy of the known and unknown of an outside world that she no longer knew: I struggled with the years that I spent in prison and the gap between the current situation and my situation. When I got out of prison there was a gap of almost one decade. I needed to relearn about the social and political change around the world. It was not very easy to catch up but I did my best. Amazingly, except for a few concrete events, the world was continuing, going the same way. I was not surprised though it was quite intriguing.
An adolescent in her late teens, in the midst of the Ethiopian-Somalia war, Kebedech was taken prisoner on the Somali border. It was during the Ethiopian revolution at the end of 1979 during the Red Terror that she left Addis Ababa in flight. The capital city had become a dangerous and difficult place to live. There were random searches by the government. Detailed information was gathered from each sector throughout the city. This surveillance prevented any kind of student activity or subversive act. Still a student, Kebedech decided to leave the country, as many students before her, who had left Ethiopia traveling as far as Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia. However the Ethiopia-Somalia border war put an end to the departures. Thus, Kebedech and some friends decided to go to Djibouti by paying merchants to assist them. This was a very risk-taking journey as Jeldessa, the point that intersects Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia, was a military zone. Early into their journey, members of the Western Somalia Liberation Front stopped them. Though they told them that they were students en route to Djibouti to connect with the UNHCR (The United Nations High Commission for Refugees) they were taken instead to Hargeisa in Somalia as civilian internees.
Two years after her release, now in the United States, Kebedech returned to her art studies. Under the tutelage of her compatriot and Howard University (Washington DC) art professor, the late Skunder Boghossian, she began visualizing her experiences and memory of human suffering. At the same time a poet, Kebedech is also a painter, using her brush as well as her pen to tell of her experience of war. Describing this experience as her greatest source of inspiration, she quotes Melvin Rader:
Our very defeats in real life become our triumphs in the life of art. Aesthetically, we become masters of our troubles, our frustrations, our defeats, by becoming interested in them, by making them works of art instead of merely suffering them.
Thus it is through the passage from suffering to the triumph of survival that Kebedech composes her images and words.
During the Ethiopian-Somalia war, detained for a decade in one of the most brutal concentration camps of Somalia, Kebedech came to terms with the extent of hatred and animosity that one human being could express towards another. She describes these acts as a decadence of humanity misguided by rationalized aggression and genocide. The written thesis of her Masters of Fine Arts, Humanity In Descent: Visual Images Of Human Suffering, is dedicated to her mother, who taught her the survival instincts that allowed her to endure the endless days of her imprisonment and the grueling mental and physical discomfort of daily toil.
Visualizing Pain and Suffering in Abstraction
For my nonobjective pieces the subject matter became abstract as well. I wanted to express myself regarding pain, healing, which are abstract notions. Images alone would not help me to express myself thus my use of texture and color, among other elements. It is not that I premeditated on a texture or color but constantly I would be thinking about certain conditions that lend itself to pain or healing. In depicting the painting, « Wound », the colors are hot and the surface a bit swollen on some areas and flat on others, the texture is circular in form with some kind of dimpling, which indicates a fresh wound, so thinking of it would create that image. With my work, « Scar Formation », the color is totally different. It is iron, metallic, gray dark brownish as if something is burned. The dimpling becomes smaller, tighter, darker, as the wound is healing, something that resembles a scar.
Creativity and memory
As I understand it, the creative spirit has its own journey. It starts from observation and witnessing situations. The process of art making does not begin when the artist starts putting paint on canvas. But it starts when the artist begins to see and witness, observe and feel. During a variety of situations, artists are observing, feeling, interpreting, and witnessing. Mostly the feeling would be unleashed after the situation. And it would then have a different energy. By the time the artist is able to express her experiences it comes out differently.
On my part, it involved a lot of condensed feelings, memory, imagination and it moved from being very personal or very time-specific and place-specific, it became timeless and global. When I started painting, when I found the time to release my feelings, I did it during that time-not specifically but I hope, universally. I truly believe that everything is connected; the history of war is connected. It happened then, but now the experiences are universal, happening in Africa, Europe or America. I did not confine myself within my personal experience. Luckily, I have not witnessed the most terrible shocking incidences like people being torture or massacred, I was told about them or have read or seen reproductions of them. Nonetheless, I have seen people being harassed; I witnessed the terrible physical condition in the prisons.
The other comes from hearing, reading, listening, going from specific and general conditions. It does not matter if you see it physically, but you see it in your mind. It is a matter of allowing oneself to experience it. I lived during a period of time where most of the people that I knew and were close with were involved in the student movement. Many of them lost their lives. You think about the lost every time, even though I did not see the body I have all the information in terms of how they died. That was very common knowledge to everyone. How people were killed, how they were when in prison. It is not only the creative people who visualized this, the whole population knew. I did not witness the killing but many people did. I allowed myself to feel that closely. I never tried to block any images or memory of people that I lost. I tried to feel how I could be close to them. There is a synthesis of the situation. In the film, « The Father, » Ermias Woldeamlak deals with the subject by drawing from the information within himself and from collective knowledge. I believe that is what happens in my work visualizing and imagining the collective truth-not only about Ethiopia but a global synthesis.

Exposure to war provided Kebedech a clarity and purpose in approaching her art. By depicting on canvas the atrocities she witnessed, she endeavored to expose them to the world, as well as try to make works more meaningful on a wider level beyond the specificities of her personal experience. This wider vision led her to explore emotions on all humanitarian issues that touch her, such as the plight of the native peoples of the Americas, who suffered from similar conditions of brutality and inhumanity. She states in her MFA thesis:
The Native American issue is part and parcel of the mythologies and misguided notions that have been presented to justify genocide. Working on the subject as part of my thesis, I am not trying to prove the invaders wrong, instead, I try to point out the attributes and express my understanding and appreciation of Native American culture and philosophy of life, which was once considered savage.
One immediately contemplates the work of Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, who also explores the universe of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Battle of Little Big Horn Series is a monumental work that reflects an extraordinary compassion and empathy for Native American peoples and their resistance to invaders. In the same way, Kebedech shows a great sensitivity in her work, The Pow-Wow Series. The experience that led up to this work reveals how she saw the Native American social dance ceremony, in which she participated, mirroring her own culture. Like the East African people, Eritreans and Tigrayans, they dance in a very smooth circular motion.
Also like Ousmane Sow, Kebedech wanted to portray a positive, realistic image of the Native American, rather than the bow and arrow wielding « savages » of the Hollywood Wild West.
Layered Identities
What role does identity play in your art? Kebedech responds: I experience identity in layers. In my view, people stereotype artistic expressions when they insist on a specific cultural authenticity, usually focusing on the most external. In so doing, they miss other layers of what they have defined as identity. At the same time, they deny the journey of that expression. Thus, artistic expressions evolve from generation to generation, and distinct differences between those generations exist. As artists evolve within a certain tradition, other experiences come through.
Currently experimenting in diverse materials, Kebedech’s work continues to reflect the profundity, intensity and complexity of life, as well as the simplicity of everyday experiences: someone’s act of generosity, a simple conversation, navigating through a crowded street, or viewing a great work of art. While she has worked mostly on the canvas, during the past several years she has been drawn toward mixed media: My latest works are meant to be seen in space, either mounted, suspended or as floor pieces. They deal with color, transparency and multiple layering. These pliable sculptures/paintings are visual languages that narrow the boundaries of both. The basis of my influences comes from living in America, and from my cultural and social memories touching all the humanities: drama, music, ancient architecture and poetry.
You asked how I survived
Just like this:
as a baby-fly may survive the fall
a blown-petal may survive the wind
as a young frog may survive the mud
an infant cricket may survive a miss
of a tender leap
No more
no less
I survived
I stepped on my own steps
and missed.
Kebedech Tekleab

///Article N° : 7670

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Les images de l'article
Flow of time, for Skunder Boghossian, 2003, Acrylic on mesh, 457 cm x 61 cm © KT
Insulated (from the collection of James and Jo Ann Newton), 1998, Acrylic on canvas, 218 cm x 142 cm © KT
Kebedech Tekleab © John Woo
The River in Rwanda (from the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois, USA), 1994, Acrylic on canvas, 180 cm x 79 cm © KT
Shackled, 1993, Acrylic on canvas, 218 cm x 142 cm © KT
Untitled (from the collection of James and Joann Newton), 2004, Acrylic on mesh, 160 cm x 92 cm © KT
Winter Petals, Powwow series, 1993, Acrylic on canvas, 178 cm x 112 cm © KT

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