How can we understand the present without first understanding the past? This question sits at the heart of Ethiopian artist Wendimagegn Belete’s practice. Combining carefully selected archival materials with a more spontaneous, instinctive approach to mark-making, he creates richly textured surfaces that transcend boundaries of culture, place, and time to offer new ways of making sense of our heritage and experiences. For his latest solo exhibition, Codeswitch, at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, London Bridge, Belete continues his explorations into history, and the concept of epigenetic inheritance – of memories that transfer over generations and permeate our present – by focusing, primarily, on the politics of mark-making, in relation to art, but also to the body and landscape. Incorporating different types of map or coding systems, these vivid, layered works invite us to consider how non-lingual modes of communication have not only historically shaped our perceptions of history, but how they might also open up routes for connection.
The exhibition’s title refers to the act of ‘code-switching’, the ability to switch between two or more languages, or dialects within a conversation, especially in response to a change in social context. By using a collage technique to incorporate different artistic materials and cultural references onto a single surface, Belete enacts a form of visual code-switching that not only embraces plurality but also freedom of expression. Over the course of his career, he has built up a vast archive of materials relating to Ethiopian history with a particular focus on the Italo-Ethiopian wars during which Italy attempted, unsuccessfully, to colonise Ethiopia. During this time, the Italians created maps of what they imagined Ethiopia to look like under their rule. These ‘failed maps’, as Belete calls them, formed the starting point for this latest series of works, both conceptually and materially. The artist has silkscreen printed images of the maps onto his canvases, creating a kind of base layer onto which he added fragments of text, paint, pastels, stitching and further prints of ethnographic photographs.