Solo exhibition at Alliance Ethio-Francaise January 20-30, 2015
The first impression I had of Workneh Bezu’s exhibition was a feeling of being enveloped by colour. According to the wall text, this solo exhibition of mixed media paintings portrayed the meeting and co-existence of Islam and Christianity in Ethiopia. The predominant motifs were angels, children, Arabic Abjad script, and the fidel, Ethiopian script and alphabet. However, the Capital newspaper of Sunday January 25th, 2015 suggests that it is more about children and happiness. Just as Workneh presents the two faiths side by side, I think these varied spiritual and secular readings can blissfully co-exist.
The Alliance Ethio-Francaise gallery in Piassa is a beautiful space whose high ceilings always enhance the art viewing experience. A visit to the exhibition with someone proficient at reading Amharic and Arabic would have made the exhibition even more meaningful. All the art is un-titled; therefore, the script must be the path to deeper engagement.
Religious imagery has historically appeared in manuscript illustrations, in murals on Orthodox Church walls, and on wood panels. These church paintings are a medium through which believers seek intercession to God. Workneh draws on this tradition. He simultaneously employs text from the Koran to create heavily textured paintings rich in image and language. In the 7th century, Prophet Mohammed’s early followers fled persecution in Mecca and sought refuge in the Aksumite Empire, present-day northern Ethiopia. The migrants were given refuge by King Armah. Since then, Islam has spread across many regions of Ethiopia. Workneh’s marriage of differing artistic histories is a deliberate juxtaposition to illustrate the co-existence of Islam and Christianity in Ethiopia. His parents are from both religions. For him, this subject holds personal resonance, in a global context it serves as a beacon of hope amidst an environment fraught with religious prejudice. He urges us to pay close attention to a possibility of peaceful co-existence: “A finger that points to the sun is not a sun itself; yet, it deserves respect for the mere fact that it points.”
Workneh Bezu is one of the Habesha Art Studio collective of artists. Their studio is located just off Arat Kilo, on the slip road across the road from Asni Gallery and St. Mathew’s church. He is happy to continue conversations in person or via his website.