Being a native of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and now based in Brussels, his art reflects the different cultures and the parted and fragmented world he knows: billboard commercials, retro film posters and old kitsch oil canvases melt together to show a globalised world with little coherence.
Gallery owner and Kifleyesus’ exhibitor Paul Kusseneers explains that the artist works in multifaceted ways. A rather odd method takes place in international telephone booths: ‘Kifleyesus curled some posters together and placed them in phone booths where people are calling family and friends across the globe…he placed a pen and people started drawing on it’. As he was explaining this, Kusseneers pulled out a poster cut in several pieces, brown-edged and full of all kinds of different alphabets, squiggles and drawings.
The idea behind this project was to demonstrate that these phone booths in immigrant neighbourhoods across different cities in Europe were a link to the rest of the world. They create a gateway to greater understanding, where all manner of people can communicate and many languages can be spoken.
Kifleyesus calls it ‘an open source’, alluding to the collaborative nature of the project. The final result even involved the removal of the wooden shelves on which callers would lean, encrusted with dirt they made interesting additions to Kifleyesus’ later installation.
For Ermias Kifleyesus, it is not necessarily essential to create an artwork from scratch, but rather to carefully gather together objects that represent moments in time, unique pieces of forgotten history to be unified by him into a single art-form.
An ideal recent example of this is Kifleyesus’ collection of several old canvases by unknown artists, purchased from a flea market in Amsterdam. When he had gathered a suitable selection, Kifleyesus duplicated, cut and drew on the canvases to create a piece portraying fractured and unique works of art.
Behind the aesthetics, Kifleyesus’ work intend to provoke thought and deliver a message, as Paul Kusseneers explains:
‘I am interested in strong pictures and artists with ideas. I chose Ermias Kifleyesus because there is a very strong idea about everything he is doing. He has a clear thought about what is going on in the world’, Kusseneer says and points towards Kifleyesus’ pictures, in which stories of mass consumption, refugees and the negative effects of globalisation are abundantly clear’.
Nowhere is this made more evident than in his use of old, rusty commercial signs and billboard commercials, working as a reminder of a conscienceless consumer society. Kifleyesus works become almost pieces of anthropological research, attempting to unpick, interpret and ultimately, understand the world and society.
Recently, the artist has returned again to the fast growing African metropolis of Addis Ababa. With a booming economy and skyscrapers rising from the red soil, Kifleyesus portrays the effects of this rapid growth.
Day labourers can be seen all over the city and another of Kifleyesus’ projects involved providing these labourers with clean overalls. The day labourers would return the overalls, unwashed, at the end of the day. These well-worn pieces of clothing were drenched in sweat but were of importance to Kifleyesus, telling a tale of a booming continent. A continent that despite massive growth, is still facing considerable problems with inequality.
The overalls, now cut into smaller pieces, provide an idea of a colourful, kitsch, fragmented global world highlighted through scraps of old rags. Ermias Kifleyesus prompting the awakening of a social conscience in his audience.
By Joacim Nielsen