Our world is one of ever-changing motion, of evolution and revolution, of cultures mingling and swirling together, a constant stream of information hurtling around the globe. We leave things in our wake for others to pick up and make their own. We seek to explore new frontiers and ways of thinking. Cultures and rituals travel across continents, adapted by local cultures and leaving behind a trail revealing from where they once came. Communities embrace new technologies, the impact of a global world acting as a catalyst for social change – whether we are ready for it or not. Traditional icons and patterns see themselves metamorphosed. Within these parameters, Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery is proud to announce a group show of new works by Dawit Abebe, Faig Ahmed and Phoebe Boswell. Trade Roots (21 March – 20 April) explores the ways in which cultures meld, adapt, and fuse together, through charcoal drawings, paintings and textile works. The artists examine the impact of new technologies, the deconstruction and reconstruction of tradition, and the evolution of ritual – and how these all blend with various cultural influencers to create new, unique, vibrant forms.
The work of Ethiopian artist Dawit Abebe examines belief systems, the search for knowledge, privacy, alienation, and materiality. Above all, he is interested in the impact of technology on human behaviour, as well as the impact of these technologies on the environment. In a sense, Abebe’s practice probes the realm of our shared cultural and belief systems, with technology taking on the role of an ‘other’ culture. “My interest in this subject has been a gradual process of examination of people’s lives over the last ten years,” he explains. Abebe began to notice how social interaction has begun to move out of the public sphere and into the technological one, through computers and mobile phones, and it is this that he explores here with a series of paintings. “I’ve seen the decrease of the ‘face to face’ social aspect,” he says. “How do these technologies affect our social life? What happens when we meet less frequently with ‘real’ people, and more often online?” Abebe also examines the impact of technology on societies, and how their introduction causes them to evolve differently. “In rural places, such as Ethiopia, Madagascar, or Kenya, people use technology as a sign of wealth, such as owning a television. They adapt fast to new technologies, and their behaviour changes fast too.”
For Azerbaijan-born Faig Ahmed, it is the artistic qualities of Azeri traditional carpets that he explores, dissembling their conventional structure to randomly rearrange the resulting components into sculptural forms. The neat geometry of an Oriental design is thrown into disarray – colours either become a muddle of static, or appear to bleed off the rug, pushing to shoot out of its edges. “The carpet is an icon of Eastern tradition,” he explains. “It is canonical and has visual boundaries – my art is directed towards transforming these boundaries beyond any recognition. These carpets were more than simply visual patterns, they held a certain language and told stories. This tradition has fallen by the wayside, and in deconstructing and reconstructing them, in a way, I am creating new stories.” Indeed, Ahmed examines the way in which tradition plays an important role within society and creates a self-regulating system. However, with the nature of today’s fast-paced world and the reach of global modern culture, traditions and their ‘non-written rules’ often find themselves adapting rapidly. He destroys traditional stereotypes and creates new modern boundaries – the new, contemporary, sculptural form echoes the ways in which man can adapt to new technologies and influences, yet retain his intrinsic core values and cultural heritage without falling into dogma. “I was in search of something really impregnable,” he says. “These carpets reflect my internal conflicts and my will to be free, to shake tradition and transcend its boundaries.”
The series of large charcoal drawings that Phoebe Boswell has created for the exhibition has been inspired by the Maulidi ya Homu of Zanzibar. A Sufi tradition of rhythmic chanting with origins in the Middle East, it was brought to East Africa through the region’s trade routes. This form of Maulidi now only exists in the Zanzibar Archipelago. While the chants were originally prayers to the Prophet, it has since become a cultural, rather than a religious, appropriation, its rhythmic movements echoing the waves and sailboats of the East African coast. “I became interested in the fact that this tradition only exists in Zanzibar, and in the notion of how the sharing, appropriating, and colonising of culture works,” explains Boswell. “I'm also fascinated by the idea of shared systems of belief, and this to me represents a physical manifestation of that.” As with much of her practice, these works have been in part inspired by Boswell’s own intercultural background, growing up in the Middle East as the child of Kenyan-British parents. “I appreciate the multi-layered nature of post-global upbringings such as my own,” she says, “and want to determine ways of exploring and conveying these multi-faceted narratives through my work, where a single drawing or a single screen film is not enough.” The works are created in charcoal, carbon, and graphite, through Boswell’s process of heavy layering and subsequent rubbing away of the medium – a reflection of the rhythmic nature of the ritual itself. “Like memory of an experience, or culture itself, [it] is revelatory in waves – the image comes and goes until completion,” she says. “It's about ritual, and the coming together to engage in a spiritually uplifting act.”
In the works of Abebe, Ahmed and Boswell, we see a complementary exploration of the foundations of our cultural and belief structures and the ways in which they operate in a state of continual flux. “I think we all share an intrigue into this idea of belonging, and what it means to be living in the world today,” says Boswell. Whether the impact of technology on a rural society, or the appropriation and reappropriation of rituals and customs, or even the deconstruction of an Oriental carpet, there is a focus on the liquid nature tradition and culture – what do we hold on to, and what do we adapt? How do we, as humans, leave behind traces of what once was, what is, and what could be? -Anna Wallace-Thompson