Tesfahun Kibru

Excelling in Experimentation and Improvisation

Tesfahun Kibru, a 40 year old artist and father of one from Addis Ababa, recently opened an exhibition of his works from the last three years. The artist is renowned for his work made out of everyday things such as scrap metal and rubber to make sculptures, paintings that used rust as paint and works of art that incorporates rubber. The exhibition, which shows off gravity defying sculptures and innovative paintings, shows off the artist’s technical skills, but more than that, his dedication to experimentation and improvisation. EBR’s Menna Asrat visited Tesfahun’s exhibition to find out what makes the artist tick.

Tesfahun Kibru, 40, is a jack of all trades in the art world. A painter, sculptor, and mentor, he uses mixed media to create artistic works that are almost other worldly. He is well known especially for crafting astonishing pieces of sculptures made from metal scraps as well as paintings that use rust as paint.

Tesfahun’s exceptional talent was once again proven when he opened an exhibition of his work on April 21, 2018, at Yucca House located in Bole District behind Rwanda Embassy, featuring sculptures made of scrap metal and canvases covered with abstract figures painted with rust. The exhibition also displayed a series of installations under the title “Improvisations”with textiles, colour and rust pressed between rubber sheets to create an almost three dimensional painting. The variations in the colour of the textiles he uses make each piece unique.

Other unexpected materials, like rubber and even compressed aerosol cans and discarded bottle caps feature in his work, which make it obvious that Tesfahun’s first choice is working with his hands on solid pieces. Unsurprisingly, much of the work he does involves metal in one form or another. Many of his paintings use rust, directly applied on the canvas. His sculptures are made almost exclusively from metal. Even his clothing, most of which he makes himself, incorporates rust on the fabric as embellishment.

It is the sculptures that catch the eye of people walking into the gallery. In the middle of the large, open, marble-clad space is a sculpture called Balance Solutions, made of metal balanced on top of a metal framework. The piece itself is made of thin, curved sheets of metal welded together, into a vaguely humanoid shape, balanced on a metal beam with nothing to secure it.

Another piece, tucked into a corner is Contemplation, which departs from some of the other sculptures, and resembles nothing so much as a flamingo at rest, with one leg raised in the air. The sculptures dotted about the two levels of the building dedicated to the exhibition include an elevated clock with scissors as indicators, painted in shades of red and black.

Born in Addis Ababa, Tesfahun spent most of his childhood in Piassa, in Arada District long considered the city’s cultural hub. His father had passed away when he was two. His mother, needing someone to look after him while she worked, left him under watchful eyes of his aunts and grandparents. It was there that he first came into contact with skills that would eventually lead him down the path to art.

“My grandfather was a carpenter,” Tesfahun recalls. “I learned skills from him. I used to make chicken coops and coffee servers. I think more than anything that was what led me to favour working with my hands. I think it was just fate that I ended up doing art instead of becoming a carpenter myself.”

Surprisingly, during his time at school, art lessons didn’t provide much inspiration to Tesfahun. “Art lessons at school focus on copying something, making things that look real,” he explained. “It wasn’t until I saw a student from the Addis Ababa University School of Fine Arts who had drawn some life sketches than I realised that art was more than just copying something.”

It was this spirit that motivated Tesfahun to get involved in range of art works and the art community. In 2006, he cofounded ‘Real Art’, a dialogue platform with other artists, to explore what art means in the context of the modern world. And then eventually, he become one of the founders of Netsa Art Village in 2008, formerly located around an area informally known as ‘Ferensay Legasyon’ in Addis, with some of his fellow alumni from the Addis Ababa University Ale School of Fine Arts and Design.

Netsa was established with aim of promoting contemporary arts in Ethiopia and giving young artists a platform for development and debate with others in the field. The space was given to the collective by the government. “Many people in the wider society don’t think of contemporary art as art. There is a perception that only classical art, or art that portrays the real world accurately is proper art,” Tesfahun explained. “I think it starts with education. If the only thing that people are taught about art is copying from a picture or making a true-to-life drawing of something, they can’t appreciate other forms of art.”

However, Netsa was recently closed, due to government plans to refurbish the park it was located in. Tesfahun says that they were told that there were plans to put in a gallery and improve the appearance of the park. Yet, the artists who worked there were forced to find other spaces to work from, some on their own, others in smaller groups. “We were becoming well known, not just in the country, but to the international art community as well. A lot of tourists came to visit our works. But for the moment, we are discussing the way forward and plan to come back in the future.”

Since the closure of Netsa, Tesfahun has moved to a space in Dima, outside Addis Ababa, where he has found a new material to work with: rubber. “I’m near the Ethiopian Tire Rubber & Economy Plant,” he explained. “They have a machine that they use to make car mats with, so I started to experiment with textiles and rust and rubber.” The self-described work-addict has found the freedom there to explore his work with different materials.

The sculptures present a contrast to the light nature of the paintings, almost all of which were made with rust. Each painting presents something different, and is not tied to a theme. That was not necessarily an accident, according to artists who have worked with Tesfahun.

“He is not constrained by species, or location, or form,” explained Gossa Gebreoda, a friend and fellow artist, who helped put the exhibition together. “He is constantly looking within himself and to the outside world for inspiration. He shows viewers that he can draw from life, he can sculpt, he can do anything, all in one exhibition.”

The recurring theme of Tesfahun’s work seems to be just that: an openness to explore and experiment. It was this desire that led him to discovering the use of rust as paint. “I’d seen people trying to scrub rust off their clothes, but that was the only thing I’d seen of rust as a colour,” he said. “Then I saw the large sheets of plastic that they use to cover metal in factories, which was covered in stripes of rust that started to flake off. That’s where the idea started. Now, I have a method to make sure it sticks to the canvas.”

While his exhibition has been popular amongst visitors, he does feel that there is still a long way to go before the art scene in Addis is where it needs to be. “It was only when I was at higher learning institution that I was exposed to the international art community,” he says. “That lack of information and education, and the fact that there are very few galleries and art schools and museums in the country is really holding Ethiopia back from realizing its full artistic potential.”

6th Year . May 16 – June 15 2018 . No.61

Menna Asrat

Deputy Editor-inChief

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