An Artist Dreamed: Interview with Ethiopian painter Yared Nigussu
ainting is a solitary experience. Dialog only occurring once a work is completed, good enough now to be shared with the public. Open for scrutiny and criticism.
But to create in front of an audience, as an improv musician does? To paint in harmony with others each doing their own thing, riffing off the collective energy?
The idea feels at once liberating and terrifying. Not unlike the challenge Yared Nigussu gave himself when he left his home in Ethiopia to travel to parts far (first France and then Canada) and exotic, not only in distance, but in the very way men and women express themselves as creative beings.
In our Skype interview, Mr. Nigussu, now thirty-one, shared some of this journey…
INTERVIEW WITH YARED NIGUSSU
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Watching you work, it is clear that you paint from a place of deep joy. When did you first realize that this was what you wanted to do?
Yared Nigussu: Maybe I was twelve when I first became seduced to the artist’s life. How artists in our neighborhood lived. Their free-thinking. As a teenager, I understood that the real beauty was their life in general.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Are there many opportunities to receive an art education in Ethiopia? How many art schools are there?
Yared Nigussu: At that time, in 2001, there was only one. It was a really hard competition. Imagine more than 90 million people…And 2,300 coming from all over to apply. Our school was accepting only 25.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: How thrilling it must have been for you to have been selected!
Yared Nigussu: It was amazing. I had friends who were really great. They did not succeed in being accepted the first time themselves. I knew artists who tried for three, four years. I was lucky.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Your family must have been just bursting with pride.
Yared Nigussu: You know actually my mom, she passed away when I was a kid. My dad, he did not live with us. It was just my brother and my sister. My brother was the only one who knew my passion, my arts. My sister, she used to say, “Today, if you clean up the house, then you can paint.” So in order to paint, you have to be really kind. [He grins.] I remember one time she was really mad at me and she just ran to my drawing and ripped it apart. [Demonstrates.]
So when I finished my high school, I just got it in my heart but I didn’t share it with a lot of people. You grow up by deciding everything by yourself. And you just do it. And so finally when it happened, when they accepted me, everybody was surprised.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What was the application and selection process like? I can imagine it was rather stressful.
Yared Nigussu: The first exam I passed rather easily, and that was great. Then they said, “Ok, now you have to do a second one. And I panicked. And my painting was no good at all, it was really dark, there wasn’t any light, and so I collected my stuff and said, “Ok, I’ll be back next year.” And my friend followed me out and said, “What are you doing?” I said I was grateful for this opportunity, but now I was done. He said, “No, you still have one more hour.” The others had already one hour ahead of me. I said, “No. I can’t do it.” But he just pushed me. So I went back, changed to another paper, and did it.
It’s funny. When we first met, I didn’t like him much. I didn’t like the way he dressed, his attitude. We had a few coffees together after class, but we were far away from one another as people. But he is the reason why I am here. He is just a brilliant guy from our group.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What happened to him? Where is he now?
Yared Nigussu: He is in Ethiopia right now. For four years we lived together. We were rally close friends then after that. We lived as a group of artists. We’ve still stayed together over Skype.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What was it like working on the “Bringing Artists Together” collaboration with ballet dancer and instructor, Linda Arkelian [previously profiled in Combustus] and photographer David Cooper?
Yared Nigussu: At first I didn’t know what to expect. Linda invited me. I thought there would be just the one musician, but there were many dancers. Everybody had their own aesthetic.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: It must have been incredibly intense, so much going on, and then on top of that, to have an audience observing! And yet you seem to be completely calm and just moving with it, as if a part of the dance, of the music.
Yared Nigussu: Yes, I really got lost in time, connecting with the brush and paint and models. Painting the lines became like moving in water, you know? Just flowing. Like meditation.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: It wasn’t a challenge to capture the dancers as they were constantly in motion? How many dancers were there at the shoot?
Yared Nigussu: Actually for me it’s just like how I am even now as I am talking with you: always moving! [He grins.]
In art school we learned how to work like this. So here I was still kind of like sketching them, just with paint. In my art classes they were changing models on us every 30 seconds. You’re developing memory, concentrating on some aspect of their body movements that stand out for you. I actually find it more interesting to work like this than with a still model. Everything you see is a fresh pose.
Yared Nigussu: There were ten or fifteen dancers at that shoot. For me, looking for the aesthetic outline, for their body movement, is very interesting. I don’t even think my eyes were just only on the movements of the dancers. My hands were just my mind, following my mind.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: The subconscious takes over?
Yared Nigussu: Yeah, exactly. In that rush of the moment, I would say I cannot control my mind, it’s like a dream for me, like sleeping. In that rush, that movement, the music…a lot of things are going on and then it just comes out. Maybe that’s what my real talent is: Flowing in that moment, with all my mistakes.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I would imagine that for you, painting in a studio could get a bit stifling after awhile.
Yared Nigussu: It is sometimes. I will often just pick up and go somewhere else to paint. I especially love performing outside. It refreshes my mind and gives me a sense of Artist.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: How long has it been now since you’ve been away from Ethiopia? What do you miss most about your life back home?
Yared Nigussu: It has been almost six years. I’m stuck with my earlier knowledge of six years ago, and I’m pretty sure there’s been a lot of change that’s happened since then back home; I’m really curious to adjust my knowledge. I miss a little bit the food, but I cannot eat it anymore, my body reacts differently now. What I really miss are my friends, because for me, a country by itself physically, it doesn’t really attract me or make me miss it. It’s the friends who are really the most important thing in my life. I miss the social meeting.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Can you describe a little for me the social gatherings in your home village? The dancing?
Yared Nigussu: The thing is, back home, when you’re dancing, you’re just exposing yourself. You are crossing the line of self-judgment and just letting go. Of fear. Living here now, somehow I lost it. So when I am painting, I put on music, and it helps me paint without judgment.
Especially in the rural areas, it is a way of just expressing yourself, of happiness, celebration, good news. Like harvesting. People just show their happiness. And when you are happy, there is no judgment, no competition. I really don’t like competition.
Yared Nigussu: In Ethiopia, there are many tribes. In the rural areas, music and dancing are a kind of ritual, old and young all together. Woman, man. They make their own instruments, just from simple materials that you can find in your surroundings, like the skin of animals for a drum.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Can you share a little about the actual process you go through selecting the colors you use for your portraits?
Yared Nigussu: Well, my teachers, even when I was in high school, told me, “Yared, you might be color blind.” [Grins]
But color works differently for me. It’s more a kind of philosophy. Because we all see color differently. I see a person according to the light and also what I see coming out of them. Like with you right now, I see many colors in your face. I see yellow, I see green, I see blue in your face. Put those all in your portrait and that creates perspective, it creates depth. And something else.
Yared Nigussu: When you see one of my portraits, you are seeing the color I saw in their entire person. Color can express a feeling, emotions, and a painting for me is all about energy. In you I see ‘happy,’ all the warm colors.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Can you tell me about this one portrait of the young boy?
Yared Nigussu: I was in France at the time and I met a young guy in my French class. And he was an ex-child soldier. I saw him as always really sad. You didn’t ever see a smile on his face. We’d go for coffee or a drink, and one day I just asked him, “Hey man, why don’t you ever smile?” And he just explained to me that his childhood was stolen from him. I told him that if I was a writer I would write something, but I am a painter. So I painted his portrait.
Yared Nigussu, aka Yared N, is an Ethiopian artist from Addis Ababa. He studied at the Addis Ababa University School of Fine Arts and Design, and graduated in Art and Education with major in painting in 2005. He then was awarded a scholarship to France where he taught art, and was involved in many exhibitions.
Yared’s work has been exhibited in France, Austria and Canada, and is now widely collected internationally. He now lives and works in Vancouver, BC.
Look for next week’s Combustus interview with Dance Photographer David Cooper who offers workshops at his Vancouver, B. C. studio.
Dancer and dance instructor, Linda Arkelian was featured in Combutus earlier in this piece, which includes a deeply moving video shot by David Cooper and choreographed and performed by Arkelian.
Ross Den Otter’s photographs can be enjoyed at his Pink Monkey Studios