Dawit Abebe : Long Hands

1 - 29 May 2021 Berlin

Private View: Saturday 1 May, 12-7 pm

Open during Gallery weekend on Sunday 2 May, 12-7pm

Monstrous, oversized arms loom over crowds of small people against a backdrop of children’s sketches and pages torn from exercise books. These striking scenes are the newest additions to Dawit Abebe’s ongoing ‘Long Hand’ series, which revolves around the Ethiopian expression of “having long hands” (ረጅም እጆች), referring to individuals who have widespread influence over groups of people. Presented in a solo exhibition at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, Berlin, this latest collection of artworks continues Abebe’s investigations into how our identities and belief systems are established, manipulated or obliterated by dominating powers, with a particular focus on the foundation and dissemination of knowledge.

In the previous works from the series, Abebe pasted pages from old school exercise books onto the canvas (symbolising ‘acquired’ and ‘regulated’ knowledge) before painting over them in block colours. However, in these latest artworks, the pages are left visible. This creates a palimpsestic surface of handwritten notes and drawings, which at first appears to celebrate freedom of speech and a multiplicity of voices, but closer inspection reveals how these materials are incorporated into the artist’s visual representation of an insidious system of power. Whilst education is a tool of empowerment, Abebe draws our awareness to how it can also be manipulated to prioritise or exclude specific narratives. ‘Historically, it is known that Ethiopia was never colonised. However, this has not prevented the country from being exploited by neocolonialism,’ he explains. ‘We have gradually given into the domination of the Western systems, abandoning our own customs and knowledge ,which would have been important assets to preserve for the world at large. Without realising, we have become puppets; we move, talk, eat, act and react according to the formula that has been prepared for us.’

In some ways, the artist’s process of cutting out figures from local and international magazines and reassembling them in new contexts, mirrors the real-life puppeteering of communities at the hands of the government. However, while their actions are intentionally disguised (often by layers of false narratives), Abebe points at the construction of the image. The artist’s hand is visible through smudged areas of paint, roughly sketched lines, warped perspectives and surreal details, some of which are recurring motifs that have been developed over the years to express complex ideas around cultural identity and heritage. The majority of these artworks, for example, feature ‘number plates’ which have evolved to denote the dates of specific historical events that took place in Ethiopia and read according to the country’s calendar, which is seven or eight years behind the Gregorian calendar depending on whether it is a leap year. The image of a golden watch or ring are also common features in the artist’s work, representing time, commitment and wealth.

The male figure has long been central to the artist’s work as a way of exploring physicality in relation to knowledge, globalisation, power and dominance. ‘I have always been fascinated by the human figure, the body as a whole. To me, it is the most abstract matter ever to man himself,’ says Abebe. ‘Lately, I have been focused on the hand as it is the part of the body that translates what is in the mind into action, thus being an important medium of expression.’ Notably, in these works, the palm of hand is often shown pressing down towards the earth, symbolising a force of oppression and potential violence. In the painting entitled Long Hands 26, the artist takes this one step further, depicting multiple hands emerging from creased folds of skin. The image alludes to the mutations of power and is made all the more horrifying by the contrasting backdrop of colourful children’s drawings. Once again, these visual incongruities serve to draw our attention to the artist’s role in constructing the image and by extension, encourages a wider awareness of how our thoughts and perspectives are affected by the narratives that we consume.

‘No experience is free from an influence in one way or another,’ says Abebe. ‘We can see that a small number of countries, certain groups of people and a few individuals are able to control directly, and indirectly, the fate of the majority at a national as well as global level.’ In these latest artworks, the artist not only refines his visual language to expose and draw our attention to forces of control, but also signals at a powerful form of emancipation: creativity.