The Truth Behind Our Faces

The artist delves into the inner us, exposing our reality and questioning religion and the many gods; in his representation all of us have created personal gods in politicians, celebrities, top inventors and business moguls.

Nairobi was described by Jeffrey Brown in his October 2014 report on PBS about Storymoja Book Festival as ‘a deeply religious place’ this statement in all is arguable but it all depends on where you are coming from logically. It is in this city that Fitsum Berhe Wodelibanos is showcasing an exhibition ‘En Light.’ Do not get it wrong, it is not like the exhibition has any resemblance to Kenyan long dress or skirt women’s, the men in suit all dapper and such as it were, Sunday best fetish, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

En light opened on Saturday May 25 at One Off contemporary Gallery located in one of Nairobi Suburbs. Marked in bright colors, the large canvases intentionally usher visitors into the gallery- the radiant faces either looking at you or lost into the horizon. “I believe as an artist, one needs to use vibrant colors,” Fitsum says as he walks me through one painting to the other. It is not just the color that one notices but also the artist’s obsession with faces-every canvas has a face and every face has a story to tell.

From the smallest, ‘Veils of Illusion’ to the largest  ‘Old Gods New Gods’, each painting has a story. From the onset, I thought Fitsum’s painting were some sort of icons. The painting ‘Veils of Illusion’ really reminded me of Cameroonian football legend Samuel Etoo. “Who is Etoo?” Fitsum asked me as a matter of fact-ly making me reconsider my earlier opinion of the painting hidden within the corner of the gallery- secluded from the rest into what looks like a former serving area. I had planned to ask him who the subject of the painting ‘Idealized Self Projection’ was but I stopped and started giving the paintings the imagined perception they were, and not real people I thought they presented.

Veils of Illusion

With a new perspective in mind, I realized Fitsum is enigmatic as an artist and universal as a creative. His works not only reflect the image in the mirror but also embody the façade we present of ourselves in portraits and images we share with our friends. The more than a dozen paintings are our faces and the faces of others we interact with- they are our imaginations and the imaginations we choose to take from those we meet or we interact with. Deeply, they are images we ignore and fail to see when we walk away from those we call friends and relatives – the faces that say, ‘I wish he could see what I am going through.” Sometimes, we choose to see the mask even when it is not there. The artist says the paintings are images of people whose thoughts are permeated with the incredible imperfections of excessive thinking.

As i strutted in the well installed gallery, I was caught by the massive painting 250cm by 200cm ‘Old God’s New God’s’ that had rented an entire wall. Hanging with all majesty as if it owned the gallery, the painting expresses three modern day religious iconography and pushed to the edges of the canvas are the traditional African icons and the Virgin Mary each holding a child. “Today’s celebrities and (I added politicians) have become our gods and therefore we have pushed the real gods away.” Fitsum said pointing to the central figure an epitome of our admiration.

Born in Ethiopia, Fitsum would pursue his dream career in sculpture, painting and print making at Asmara School in Eritrea. A child of Africa, Fitsum would move to Kenya where he has been creating his masterpieces that explore humanity and its interaction with environment. As an artist, Fitsum has exhibited majorly in Europe, China and the UAE. He has permanent collections at Casoria Contemporary Art Museum, Naples, East African Visual Arts Trust (formerly RaMoMA), Nairobi and Kunst Welten, Salzburg.

The current exhibition runs through June 23.

Photos Credit:

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