In a society where many people tend to accept the notion ‘seeing is believing’, artists like Workneh Bezu, a pioneer in Braille paintings who organised exhibitions for third time recently in less than a decade, rejects the idea that the visually impaired can’t appreciate paintings. According to Workneh, his deep involvement with Braille paintings emerges from the conviction that fine art should be observed and expressed by all human beings. EBR’s Tamirat Astatkie visited his exhibition and studio to learn more about his art works and perspectives.
You don’t need 20/20 vision to appreciate Workneh Bezu’s paints although the most basic thing needed while viewing any kind of art is sight. Workneh, 39, changed this and made sure that visually impaired can enjoy paintings.
During the exhibition Workneh organised for visually impaired people, which was opened on February 9, 2017 at the Italian Cultural Institute, he displayed 45 oil paintings on canvas and acrylic veins on transparent plastic. Two pieces of artwork by two visually impaired mentees of the exhibitor were also displayed. The exhibition, which was entitled ‘Yes! I Can See’, was among the rarest of its kind to be seen in a different artistic spectrum.
Some of the unique features of Workneh’s paintings are that there is Braille on each of their paintings, explaining what the paintings are about while the remaining paintings of Workneh help the visually impaired to view by enhancing the painting through short description found on it, which explain each work.
“Fine art should be observed or expressed by all human beings,” Workneh told EBR while talking about his deep involvement of braille paintings. “Based on this concept, I have given due emphasis to incorporate features into my works so that they can be observed and perceived by all sense organs.”
Workneh says that the idea of the currently held exhibition has evolved from his previously held two exhibitions in 2008 and 2012 characterised as tactile paintings and tactile paintings with braille support, respectively. “This year’s exhibition is unique in that my paintings are accompanied by two remarkable artworks drawn by two of my visually-impaired mentees.”
Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Workneh began drawing at a young age. Noticing his inclination and talent towards art at the formative years of childhood, his parents were supportive in supplying materials of his wish. When he completed high school, Workneh immediately enrolled the prestigious Alle School of Fine Art and Design under the Addis Ababa University at a relatively younger age to develop his passion for art as a vocation. “I was ridiculed by my peers how I could be able to shoulder the burden of challenges due to my age,” he recalls. “But, I managed to graduate in 2001.”
Workneh was quick enough to adapt art as his professional career and lifestyle, and used it as a means to channel his passion and dreams. “The formal training at the school broadens my technical knowledge as well as equips me with the required academic skills,” he stresses. “Both the knowledge and the skills I acquired from the school help me to translate my dreams into reality.”
In the same year of his graduation, along with his three friends Workneh opened Habesha Art Studio, located around Bel-Air in Arada District. “Habesha Art studio is not only a model for young artists to display their works of art directly to the public, but also exemplary for existing for many years unlike many others,” says Eyob Kitaba, a prospective graduate of the master’s of fine art programme at Alle, who closely follows up the works of Workneh.
In the course of time blending his relentless experiment and diligence, as many artists who know him agree, Workneh has developed his own distinct features, styles, patterns, colour choice as well as freedom in his works of art despite reflecting different themes and messages at different times. “Besides, painting on canvas, I am always in search of various media platforms to come up with fresh and dynamic artistic approach so as to translate and transcend my understanding of the world.”
In his less than two decades of experience, Workneh has experimented different artistic forms and has come up with creations such as rug puppets, paintings in oil and water colours, acrylic veins paintings on plastic, sculptures and graphics art. “I am among the pioneers of children’s puppet film and short animation film in Ethiopia.”
A life of selfless service to a community, especially for people with visual impairment, is a personal trait to Workneh. “He has been rendering a voluntary service in our organisation for the last two years. He has so far trained 10 visually impaired people at different times. Besides, he is always willing to work with us,” testifies Marha Nigussie, who works as event organiser in Together!, an Ethiopian disability and development organisation, committed to holistic educational, professional, psycho-social and material support for visually impaired people in Ethiopia.
Mohammed Abdulmenan, 29, is visually impaired and one of the exhibitors of Braille paintings. “I was overwhelmed with joy,” Mohammed described the first moment of seeing a Braille painting of a ship four months ago. “It boosts my confidence forever. After taking the training, I have been drawing and will keep on doing so for mainly enjoyment.”
Regarding the practice and trend of similar works of art, Eyob believes that a lot of practices are out there in the world. He substantiates what he saw in his brief stay in Europe as a benchmark. “I witnessed people with visual impairment attending regularly art exhibitions like the Mona Lisa and other masterpiece works of art that are converted to both digital and handmade tactile paintings along with an audio description aid.”
Eyob underscores, however, that artists here and abroad don’t learn such things in a formal school setting rather they are self-initiatives and are used to serve them as a way to give back to a society as contribution like what Workneh has been doing it for some time now.
In Ethiopia, where Braille has never been used beyond a written language in literary works such as novels and poems, Eyob is deeply indebted to Workneh’s efforts for being a pioneer to use Braille language as a medium of his works of art. “What is important of such artworks, however, is that the power they have to provoke discussion. They question whether the power of sight is an eye or mind? Imagination and virtual communication will also be in the centre of discussion. After all, the goal of an art work is to serve, celebrate and share humanity,” Eyob says.
For Workneh, these paintings have functions beyond aesthetic value. “I want my paintings to be instrumental in raising awareness about visually-impaired people in the society as well as giving a hint that to ease their life can be done with less effort,” Workneh concludes. EBR
5th Year • February 16 2017 – March 15 2017 • No. 48