The glare of a bare electric light bulb is something no eye can comfortably support for long. The sharp blind spot that it creates gives a certain palpable sense to those metaphors of knowledge and revelation that put the image of unbearable light at the border between the muddle of the senses and the harsh purity of truth. Shading it as we so sensibly do, we tend to forget just what a fiercely blazing miniature sun we wire into every room. This was the first thing to strike me as I watched Assefa Gebrekidan at work on his sculptural installation Inner Power, conceived for the industrial space of the Lieu Unique in Nantes, France last year. As he composed the elements of the work, assemblages of plastic forms incorporating sheets of perspex and vessels ranging from small domestic buckets and bowls to weighty industrial barrels, he gradually introduced sources of electric light which he would arrange provisionally in the structures, testing the effect within each material.
The lights not yet fixed in place lay scattered across the space at the end of snaking extension leads, some glowing from beneath upturned bowls, some dangling in buckets, the light seemingly a liquid in danger of brimming over. As he enclosed each bare bulb within a container he staged a drama of energy held in check by a veil of plastic, made visible in an escaping burst of colour.
Gebrekidan takes as his raw material these phenomena of perception and direct experience, rarely communicable in a photograph of the work, at the level of both form and ideas. Walking through the constellation of illuminated forms made in this way and feeling the slight heat that emanates from them, we have a real sense of the channelling and filtering of energy that he puts into play. Whilst in the physical presence of the sculptures we can appreciate a play of scale that casts us as children in the company of towering but benevolent spirits. It is through a lived experience orchestrated by Gebrekidan that the symbolic properties of light, colour, volume and form take on life.
An earlier piece sharing the title Inner Power, and a variation on the same theme, The Light Within, give us a few indications of how we might read more recent developments. These sculptures in clay and electric lighting conflated the forms of human head and lamp, vessels radiating multi-coloured light from their hollows and cavities. The inner power alluded to is at once the literal flow of electricity at work and the representation of spirit or consciousness that it suggests. The symbolism we associate with the flickering flame of the oil lamp is here updated and transferred to the fragile yet resistant filaments of the light bulb. In the filtering of a single white light to create a multiplicity of colours we are also led to think of stained glass windows with their metaphor of divine unity behind fractured, diverse appearances.
Standing in his work space among his assemblages, some giving off a green radioactive glow, some smouldering ember-like, some shining like oversized fairy-tale jewels, we talked about the powerful and incommunicable quality of radiant light; that ‘red-ness’ of red or ‘green-ness’ of green — something that often features in psychedelic literature as writers come up against the limits of language. For Gebrekidan this aspect of light stands as a symbol of something giving itself completely; ‘like a mother’s love’ he ventured. This sense of the visual realm holding a potential active, positive force, the gaze as a channel for powers that can work for the good of the viewer, has a strong tradition in Ethiopia, where maladies of the soul and the body are sometimes treated with specially prepared images. The forms and colours, transcribed onto a scroll as long as the sufferer’s body, are engaged with in a healing trance.
The forms used by Gebrekidan in Inner Power to channel this benevolent energy were ambiguous. Their immediate impact set me thinking of the geometric utopias that floated in the dreams of modernists at the dawn of the plastic age; the ‘light-space modulators’ and radiant cities. The clean lines and bold colours of the assembled domestic and industrial plastics combined in shapes that seem pregnant with futurist dynamism, thrusting upwards, often resisting gravity and hovering a few feet above the floor. These forms were constructed largely from water vessels, objects that Gebrekidan began working with in Ethiopia where they have an everyday presence, sold on the street and a basic part of the domestic arrangement. I imagined then that perhaps these familiar forms had particular significance in their connotations of survival and life in a country suffering devastating droughts — water and light equated in these pieces as life’s essentials, miraculous in their simplicity.
In fact for Gebrekidan the forms that the vessels make up hold quite another meaning. As he explained to me in an e-mail, these forms are abstractions of ‘dynamite, missiles, grenades, and bullets’. They are made through a cathartic process in which Gebrekidan transforms to ‘peaceful and spiritual’ ends, the shapes that haunt him as someone who grew up in a war-torn country; his childhood home used by soldiers to ‘set up, clean, organise and play with their weapons’. ‘Most of my works’, he says, ‘reflect the ongoing conflict I grew up with’. In this he is not only referring to the war but also to a jarring discord between the reality of violence around him and the vision of peace and unity that the Church impressed on him.
This individual symbolism is there in the darkness and light, for those who are made aware of it, but Gebrekidan is far from didactic, concerned as he is to give his work ‘a universal nature’. The symbols are open and in some works manifest a metaphysical humour akin to that at play in Rebecca Horn’s sculptures. In Wheel of Light, a piece he made in 2002, he assembled a plastic bowl sun and beneath it knives arranged like the hands of a clock, spinning mercilessly, slicing away our precious seconds. In an earlier installation entitled sharply The Uninvited Guest, we find bottles emptying themselves crazily into a toilet bowl.
At the heart of Gebrekidan’s approach is a sense of the potential and malleability of matter and experience. The city of Paris, which he visited during his residency in Nantes, impressed him by the artistry at work everywhere; in the stonework, the gilded statues, the gates of the Metro. It seemed to him that in Paris ‘everything was art’. By performing his alchemy on the base materials of modern life and replenishing archetypal images with new forms drawn from the world around us, Gebrekidan works to re-establish such a sense of the marvellous in us.
Like William Blake, whose spirit we might imagine welcoming a fellow artist in colour, radiance and joy to London, he is aware of the narrowness of those chinks through which we apprehend reality and has set himself the task of expanding them.
The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys Bahá’u’lláh, Bahai Publishing Trust (1991) ISBN 0877432279
The Prophet and the Broken Wings Kahlil Gibran, Penguin (1998) ISBN 0140195513
Omar Khayam Everyman’s Poetry (1998) ISBN 0460879545
Under Ethiopian Skies Graham Hancock, Richard Pankhurst and Duncan Willetts, Camerapix (1997) ISBN 187404189X
Hundertwasser Harry Rand, Taschen (2003) ISBN 3822829331
The Fountainhead Ayn Rand, HarperCollins (1961) ISBN 0586012648
'Split the atom’s heart, and lo! Within it thou wilt find a sun’ Qur’án 67:3 (and quoted in The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys by Bahá’u’lláh)
Assefa Gebrekidan (b. Axum, Ethiopia 1973) lives and works in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His sculptural installations are grounded in graphic composition and drawing from life. His earliest experience of art was in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Axum where his father is a priest. Gebrekidan trained in sculpture at the Addis Ababa University School of Fine Art and Design, where he was introduced to Russian constructivist sculpture. Ethiopia had political links with Russia in the late 20th Century. After graduating in 1996, for several years he taught art in the Mekele Fine Art School in the north of the country. In this period he made large temporary sculptures in unfired clay which he arranged and photographed against the sky, before destroying them. Returning to Addis Ababa, he experimented with works incorporating found materials and lights in darkened spaces. His solo exhibition ‘Light and Dark’, took place at Zoma Contemporary Art Centre, Addis Ababa in 2003. In 2004 he exhibited in the Dak’Art Biennial, Dakar, Senegal and Le Lieu Unique, Nantes, France. ‘A Glimmer of Hope’ at Camden Arts Centre is his first international solo exhibition.
Bevis Martin is an artist based in Nantes, France.
Supported by Bloomberg.