Studio Visit: Mekdes W Shebeta

Photos: Tove Lise Mossestad and courtesy of the artist.

Interview: Nora Adwan

Q&A with Mekdes W Shebeta: Artist living and working in Bergen, Norway

MWS: Mekdes, A+F: ART + FOLK

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We met Mekdes W Shebeta at her studio in Bergen to talk about her artistic practice. In the last two years Mekdes has been working between Norway and Ethiopia building a collaborative practice and connecting people as well as developing installation and performance works. She is currently working on a commissioned work so we took the opportunity to also visit the workshop at Wrap to see the work in progress.

Work in progress at Wrap. Preparing a sculpture work for a commission at a barnehage.

A+F: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your art?

MWS: I came here to Bergen for the art school and after graduation I stayed and then applied to the MA and stayed again after graduation. It was a very nice experience, I learned a lot, I met a lot of nice artists, I felt safe there. It was very hard to leave, the school was a place to hide, in a way a safe place. Now I have my studio here in Bergen but I am feeling a bit restless.

I am originally from Ethiopia but I lived in Kenya for about 15 years. During my studies here I was very focused on connecting my art work to Kenya, I felt like I had cut Ethiopia out of my life. I was very young when I left. Now as an adult I still love Kenya but I realise the more I stay out the more I am a foreigner there, so my recent work is more focused on Ethiopia.

A+F: What projects have you been working on in Ethiopia?

MWS: I developed the Patch Up project in Ethiopia, which started in 2017. The first idea was to work with artisans in Ethiopia and students from the art school in Addis Ababa. I wanted to work with young people in the slums. They come from the countryside originally and work in the city. Then what happened was, when I went there, things had changed. At the same time there was a problem, unrest in the region. So, I couldn´t move the way I wanted. Also at the school, there was not so much connection with the students. They were like, ´why do we have to do that? ´ But I found a group to work with. I want them to work with the artisans, but they don´t look at them the way I look at them.

Showing a wood carving by one of the artisans.

Showing a wood carving from one of the artisans.

My plan was to also to observe, so I travelled a little bit to see these people who work with their hands. I travelled with some of the students to meet artisans and everyone wrote their own ideas about the experience. We didn´t do it as a workshop, because when you do that, people expect something from you, they are used to people exploiting them. Instead we just went to visit and have an organic conversation. In the end we made an exhibition together. The project also took on an international aspect after this first exhibition with artists from Norway and America who I invited to participate. This was partly for the students. The art in Ethiopia is more classic and the audience looks for that. The students formed something called Hulu studio and put me as their director. The studio creates pop up exhibitions and invites other artists to participate and to collaborate. Me and Hulu Studio wanted to create more opportunities and arenas to work in a more contemporary style.

When I came back, Patch Up started to develop into something else. I continued to work with the students, six of them then graduated and worked with Hulu Studio.

I decided it would be better to promote the studio and do my artwork. The art school is an institution and they don´t understand my thought process. They want to invite me to do my work only but I see the process as going both ways, that I learn from the students too. I wanted to learn and I wanted to see my work in that context. Part of my motivation with initiating the project was to see how my art, the things I do here, works over there. I discovered that it is very limited. My work has roots from Ethiopia and roots from my migration experience but it is influenced more by media here, and the interpretation of the work is influenced by media.

Objects from performances and preparation sketches.

A+F: You studied here in Bergen for both BA and MA, right?

MWS: Yes, I also studied in Ethiopia and in Kenya but when I came here it wasn´t recognised, they don´t accept qualifications from Third World Countries in Norway and so I had to start from the beginning again. In England I could have started in the third year of the bachelor but here it is more difficult. I decided to start in preschool like a beginner, I thought, well I know how to draw, how to paint, how to sculpt, but there are a lot of things I don´t know. I had a classical education and it was interesting to learn about contemporary art and I liked it. I enjoyed working with new media and performance, I am an artist so I decided I will only develop.

A+F: You have really embraced video, performance and installation. It´s what you are known for here in Norway.

MWS: Yes, for the bachelor I applied with drawing and three dimensional work. Then I began working with symbolic and metaphoric work with video and animation. And of course with installation, I like sculpture.

Then I heard about socially engaged art and I thought, I have always liked working with people, maybe this relational art, or socially engaged art is for me. I tried this kind of art in Kenya, as part of my bachelor studies in 2012. Somehow it didn´t make sense there to work like that as an artist, I needed to be an organisation or a teacher, or become a student again.

Documentation from I Have a Cow on the Sky That I Don´t See the Milk, from her MA exhibition (images Bjarte Bjørkum) and animation work Mr So and So.

A+F: So do you think to work collaboratively in Kenya you need more formally defined roles than here?

MWS: Yes maybe, but it came out very well in the end. Some people formed a small school weaving items out of throw away plastic bags. The people came from Mutunba slum, Nairobi. I know it well from when I lived in Kenya. They had developed workshops there with the purpose of keeping young teenagers off the street and empowering them. They started working together and it was growing, but then someone started building some big development there and kicked out the residents, so the community was scattered.

I was very sad about it, they had been working hard and made something good. After they scattered I managed to find one person and he collected some of the community back together. I went there to discuss how to continue and to persuade them to work with the local market instead of focusing on tourists. We began to make furniture, which was successful and I learned a lot.

My work from that was as a storyteller. I collect stories and I worked with young people there to make documentation. In the end I felt that I couldn´t show it, I didn´t feel good about it. I didn´t know why at the time, I just didn´t feel right. I wrote fictional stories instead.

A+F: But your work is inspired by real stories?

MWS: Yes, it´s based on real life experiences.

A+F: Can you articulate now why you felt you couldn´t show the documentary footage?

MWS; Yes, here (in Norway) people only see the poverty. It would be the same as doing what the Westerners do; go and get a picture and then show it. What does that do for the people? I already feel bad that I couldn´t lift them up, I worked with artistic people, I helped them develop their market for their designs. I gave courses in use of colour and 3D design but I couldn´t do more than that. If I would show the footage here, I know I am learning from them, but it looks like I am helping them. Only the poverty is visible to the audience here but for me I see the beauty of the social life there.

Instead I made symbolic works and wrote stories.

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I worked with socially engaged art in Norway for a while after the project in Kenya, but at some point I felt I didn´t understand it properly. So, I´m thinking and working without a title now, I don´t want to be interpreted as a socially engaged artist even though I still enjoy working with people and exchanging knowledge.

A+F: What have you been working with more recently?

MWS: I have been working with a performance called Drop to Fetch, that I showed here in Bergen and in Finland in the end of 2018. There is something burning inside me about water as a metaphor, but I don´t know exactly how it´s going to be seen. I performed the work in Ethiopia this year, it was very different. It didn´t look good there, it seemed messy. I put a chicken outside as part of the installation, but there no one interpreted it as part of the art work. It was very crowded so the performers were inside the crowd. That was good actually, it means there was interaction. The women performing didn´t really enjoy that though and you can see their fear expressions in the video. Out of the three places the performance worked best visually in Finland, in an old building. The venue makes a big difference in the experience of live work. I learned a lot showing this in three places and especially seeing the reaction in Ethiopia, it changed the way I think. I was surprised that the audience there has even more distance to the experience of migration, it was hard to connect. I thought it was only here in Norway people don´t want to hear about the pain, but there people really dismiss it. I work a lot with painful stories and people don´t really want to deal with the pain.

Documentation from Drop to Fetch, top to bottom:

  1. Watching documentation in the studio

  2. Performing at Turku Festival Finland. Image Julius Töyrylä

  3. Performing at Turku Festival Finland. Image Julius Töyrylä

  4. Performing at Bergen International Performance festival at Kunstgarasjen with PAB. image Bjarte Bjørkum

  5. Performing at Bergen International Performance festival at Kunstgarasjen with PAB. image Bjarte Bjørkum

  6. Performing as part of Patch Up Project, Ethiopia at Hulu Studio.

I´ve been doing a lot of collaborative projects in the last years and maybe it is time to work solo for a while. I am currently trying to redefine my art practice, I have in the past been very focused on migration and on painful stories and situations. I have been trying to communicate these situations and I worry that the work has become very ´victim´ in a way. That people interpret these stories as weaknesses because they see the experience of migration through media and marketing and don´t understand what this suffering means.

Now I want to talk about strength. Surviving this life has made me a very strong person. The experience is deep and I don´t want to tell the story that people want to hear any more. What I have learned from all my experiences is very important and I want to talk about how this has developed my intellect and my knowledge in a different way and how it has made me strong. I need to find the way to be honest in my expression of this.

Thanks so much for your time!

Once a month, ART + FOLK will introduce someone from our local art community.  We will open the doors to their home or to their studio and have them tell us a bit about their everyday, their work and what they have on their own walls.

Interview by Nora Adwan; photos by Tove Lise Mossestad. 

This project is supported by the City of Bergen (Bergen Kommune) and Arts Council Norway (Norsk Kulturrådet).

 

 

 

Nora Adwan