Eritrea Profile: Sept 18,2004
Mussie Estifanos (Boss) and Hagos Tewolde's September Flowers of Paintings
DEPARTMENT OF ADULT AND MEDIA EDUCATION
An evening last week I had a casual visit to British Library. As I climbed up the stairs of the British library, a cluster of paintings on display at the elbow turn instantaneously caught my attention. Each painting splashed with myriads of colors is beaming the characteristic African images, which drive one quite nostalgic and crazy about its glory. As my eyes veered round over each painting in all its dimensions, each looked quite naïve and amazingly reality friendly. I looked for the name of the artist. It was written as Mussie (Boss) on one corner. I looked around for Mussie, if he was by chance there, to discuss and ascertain with him about what I read into those paintings. Fortunately he was present there sitting with the Librarian and he could smell it out from my queer looks around that I was looking for him.
He lost no time to reach me and said, “ Hello, this is Mussie”. Mussie, the tall and the stout, reminiscent of the gigantic Africans that I read during my school days, came and introduced himself to me. I was awestruck at his height and hefty built. He shook my hands but it sent the shock waves down my spinal cord. My whole body trembled at once as if an earthquake came. However, soon I regained my control and said, “Hello” to him.
Right from my coming over Asmara last year, paintings have become a cynosure to my eyes as they offered a deep insight between various forms of Eritrean art and paintings compared to the Art forms of India and the West. Especially as I saw and analyzed these Eritrean paintings, it became evident that there is something African in general, especially Eritrean in particular, among the art forms here. Immediately after 3 or 4 days of my arrival in Asmara I went to the State run information department to get some literature about Eritrea. The information department sold two Horizon special issues, which offered me, a lot of information about Eritrea and its tourist centers. Along with them they offered a book, “A Celebration of Color” comprising the beautiful paintings of Tesfai Ghebremichael.
It was a book, which he brought out in color in connection with an Art Exhibition in last year February. They portrayed all the facets of Eritrea right from ----farming and grazing of cattle on the open dry lands at the foot of the over lapping hills against the yellow backdrop, symbolic of both the early morning golden Sunrise or the evening wrapped up in an orange golden Sun set (the inner page of the front cover) to the serpentine roads on the Nefassit hills to Gala ( a sword dance of Saho, Bilan and Kunama). His paintings first time introduced me to the rugged faces of the rural women and men in their traditional dresses having a characteristic charisma and aura of attraction about. I had seen subsequently paintings of Ghide at the Asmara Central Post office and the paintings drawn on the walls opposite Nyala Hotel on the way to Nakfa house and behind Nyala hotel. They were bearing the characteristic stamp of wartime education and entertainment, besides the rustic surroundings of the interior villages where stuccoed arrangement of stones as walls or fences are of common occurrence and sight.
As I went on reflecting on the Eritreanness of the paintings I came across, Boss hastened to take me back to his paintings at the elbow of the stairs once again. We both moved back to the paintings. There are about 5 paintings on display and all of which bore plenty of Eritreanness that I was trying to mark out as distinct from the Africanness among the art forms of paintings.
A pregnant woman in her middle twenties smoking a cigarette, against the backdrop a red color symbolizing the pathetic plight of women beleaguered by poverty, amply captures the mood and frustration that crept into her life at that young age itself. Where as this painting of Boss is symbolic and widely prevalent form of art both in the East and the West, it is quite different from the other four. But it dealt with the reality of life enveloping some of the Eritrean women. The other four paintings on display indeed portrayed a different form of art unique of Eritrean.
They are not Picasso types. They are new emerging trends, quite original in thought and expression and are typical of Boss. One painting reveals the night shadows under the dim lights while it is raining and as a horse cart is passing by. One can see stark, contrasting strokes of colors are given a masterly touch to bring out the glossy back drop over which even the shadows of the house and its (light of the house) light beaming through doors are well reflected in a great articulation. It became very difficult for me to turn my eyes away from it to move onto the other. Another painting, though in its composition of colors and basic style of painting similar to the former one, has greatly projected the Bilen dance form of the Eritrean women. The dance postures came out quite lively in their myriad colors. They appeared as though they were really dancing on the canvas. These two are characteristic of Eritreanness, I felt.
There are three more paintings, which are produced here for the appreciation of the wider readership of this article, which characteristically revolve round the cubism of Picasso. Picasso has developed this unique form of art during his life time which passed down the ages to the modern younger generations including our Boss. M F Hussein to Boss all at least once go craze in trying to emulate the Picasso’s fascinating cubism. They are the images with exuding life fitted in straight lines but the figures emerge from the intersection and the bisection of the lines themselves. Sometimes they consist of circles and half-circles but it would be difficult to make out the point of genesis of these circles and with what they correlate. Similar lines and Circles relate to a number of images but given to each figure or image, it looks as if it fitted it very much. What becomes a head of the child becomes either a breast or a belly of another women in the figure.
Sometimes, it may emerge as the ball or a toy a child is playing. Thus the images over lap but each image could be hammered out distinctly while the same image could be part of another image. This is unique form of cubism and every growing artist quenches his thirst of art once in his lifetime by resorting to cubism. Ultimately every one as Picasso himself did must return to the traditional forms of art and painting, though for some time cubism becomes a utopian and surrealistic form of artist’s vision. Mussie (Boss) is no exception to it. But Mussie has great artistic vision and depth, which had produced a different but original artist out of him. As we finished surveying critically each of his art form, we came to the end of the stairs. Then we moved onto one of the chairs of the library and settled there. Mussie had suddenly sent his hand into the bag hanging across his shoulders and took out an album, which consisted of a range of his paintings. I took it into my hands and went through it with a deep sense of interest. His eyes for a while twinkled with happiness at my interest in his paintings. He watched me very carefully as I browsed through. They have much more depth than what I have described here. They testify in ample measure to his creative genius. As I finished glancing at them, I looked at him to know further about him. He explained to me about his life, both the past and the present, with all the English he had at his command. What surprised me more was that Mussie is a great cartoonist and draws excellent caricature. He has been a cartoonist for Haddas Eritrea for quite a long time. He is a man with twin talents.
Though he did complete up to elementary education, he did pursue his further education in his drawing. Like Tesfai Ghebremichael, he too began drawing paintings right from his childhood. Whereas Tesfai had his father as inspiration, Boss had his elementary school teacher as his source of inspiration. He too underwent training in the art school run by the Chinese teachers. He held his first exhibition jointly with his friends in 1994. Today Mussie is undoubtedly an artist par excellence. As I got up to go out to see another exhibition currently going on at Italian Cultural center just close to British Council on the Post office road, Mussie hugged me with great affection and pressed my hand with all the warmth.
My visit to Italian cultural center has much more in store beyond my imagination to wrap me up in surprise and joy. Firstly, it is a painting exhibition sponsored by American Embassy dedicated to the memory of the mother—Mebrat-- of the artist, Hagos Tewolde. Hagos is a naïve and quite gentle in his appearance. He looked more like an Indian, than an African. He is short and very simple in his outlook. But his exhibition is certainly larger than what I had seen so far. There are a number of beautiful paintings displayed in the large hall. Most of them are bearing the characteristic of Eritreanness that I spoke of now in the foregoing. Most of the paintings revolve round the life of Eritrean villages, preferably Merhano area. There are a number of paintings portraying different dances of Kunama, Bilen, etc. I liked among all other beautiful paintings—Monk, Kohnito (stones), priests, Camel with merchant. Most of the paintings are not titled. But they contained a characteristic movement of the brush that I had not seen so far. I never knew that new art forms could emerge from such strokes of the brush. But, Hagos combined this unique movement of the brush with the excellent contrasts of the colors. Pat came the beautiful images of the rural life, white dressed women, fields, dances and the rugged hills of the country side. I was spell bound at the beauty of these paintings for sometime. He kept an animation show simultaneously to show that he is adept at drawing animation films too. It was an excellent animation film quite ideal for our Department of Adult and Media Education as it dealt with the health topics such as Malaria, AIDS and HIV. He is the first artist to go that far in developing modern form of arts into social cause in Eritrea. It moved me so much that I could guess how intensely his work is related to the development of Eritrea now than ever.
At the end of my looking at the paintings and animation films, Hagos came and introduced himself to me. I was at that time looking at a painting that depicted a simple narrow asphalt road, alongside which has grown a beautiful grass filled with plants tossing their rose petal heads in the soft breeze. For a second it flashed in mind that I had seen a similar scene somewhere recently. I asked him where he captured this scene into his artistic vision. He said it is a road near air port down Mai-nefhi. “What are these flowers? They are very fragile, delicate and quite beautiful”, I asked him. “They are popularly known as ‘September Flowers’,” he said with a sparkle in his eyes. He asked me to write my comments in his visitor’s book. I wrote, “ There are great artists in Eritrea. Their Art is as great and delicate as the “September Flowers”. Hagos Tewolde is not an exception to this honor”.
Hagos read it and his joy sported on his face in immense measure as a token of gratitude and acknowledgement. Indeed, Mussie and Hagos are artists of fathomless depths and they are gifts of the creator to Eritrea. Unfortunately both of them need a lot of financial support to extend their talent to the other parts of the world. If the Europe or the US come forward to generously sponsor their paintings in their countries, there is no better reward than that, I murmered in myself while walking out of Italian cultural center.