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Tsedaye Makonnen, 2021 Sondheim Finalist

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I hear the sound of waves crashing. A lone figure walks purposefully down a wide boulevard flanked by white marble obelisks and perfect trees, trailing a long dark cape sparkling with geometric patterns. The figure is female, her body covered by the undulating train billowing out behind her for eight or ten feet on the ground, where patterns on the dark cloth catch the light. The camera follows as she moves toward Buckingham Palace in London. The Victoria Memorial gleams in the distance, a gilded winged statue standing atop a globe in celebration of Queen Victoria and the might of the British Empire, flanked by classical marble symbols of justice, truth, and motherhood.

The sparkling patterns are the byproduct of an earlier work of art, “Aberash, You Give Light” (2018), by Tsedaye Makonnen where intricate shapes were laser cut to resemble Coptic crosses and Christian iconography, symbols that actually predate Christianity and reference Black spiritual practices and religions from the Congo, West Africa, Haiti, the Caribbean, and Brazil, as well as Black churches in the American South. Makonnen is the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, part of a large community in Washington, DC, where she lives and works.

The artist affixed the negative shapes to long columns of fabric that became four new works, “Astral Sea I – IV.” In each, dark bluish textiles represent water and the mirror bits symbolize Black lives lost at sea during historic and contemporary migrations. Makonnen often drapes the cloth over her body in ceremonies, combining sculpture, fiber art, and performances that address the endless history of dehumanization that Black and brown women face every day, not just those whose premature deaths have been grossly normalized, but all those who literally have no safe place on earth. Makonnen focuses her work in particular on people migrating from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, historically and in the present day, drawing parallels between the two.

 

Tsedaye Makkonen, "Astral Sea III at Buckingham Palace," 2020, video
Tsedaye Makonnen, "Cosmic Soil," 2021, Burlap fabric, wood, mirror acrylic, cotton 92 1⁄2 in. x 186 in. with Framed Images from "Aberash: You Give Light" (performance documentation), 2019

Makonnen’s video, “Astral Sea III: Buckingham Palace,” is projected large at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, site of the 17th annual exhibition of Sondheim Prize Finalists. In the video, as well as in photos and sculptures on display, Makonnen’s work speaks to the labor of women—the bearers of everything—and it connects with the artist’s lived experiences as a Black mother, birthworker, and the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants in the USA.

I watch as Makonnen walks closer to the statue and drops to the ground, bows, and flings the cloth over her head. It hits the ground with a resounding thwack, the sound of the hundreds of tiny tiles roiling, like a rainstick full of glass. Brown arms reach wide and unfurl the semi-transparent dark cloth. A rosetta pattern, a mosaic of mirrors, is centered over her head. Makonnen’s performance is charged with anger, but also healing and tenderness. The crashing movement of the cloth on the ground is a cleansing; she swipes her arms across the ground as if scrubbing it clean.

The camera angle shifts and reveals the artist’s face. She is standing right in front of the statue facing Buckingham Palace, the ultimate symbol of British colonialism, one of the empires that brought terror and suffering to generations of people who look like her. The camera zooms in close as she speaks, her soft, clear voice in focus, reciting rhythmic prose: “To see your doom as your salvation . . . When drowning is the best option (repeats) . . . because of YOU (repeats).” The artist wraps the cloth around her shoulders like a mantle, closing her eyes, and intones a familiar Octavia Butler quote from Parable of the Sower: We hear the clinking of the glass beads as the artist claims the space around her.

 

Tsedaye Makonnen, "Astral Sea I," 2019, mirror acrylic and fabric, L 17 ft. 11 in. x W 3 ft. 7in

In the video, there are a few tourists around, pale-skinned and blonde in hiking shorts, and they pretend not to notice this woman, but their lack of attention is conspicuous. The artist has performed similar pieces in other spaces created to uphold white supremacy and violence, including a performance at Christoph Büchel’s “Barca Nostra” at the Venice Biennale 2019, and in front of the Washington Monument on the Mall in DC.

Predictably, a police car shows up and suddenly the camera points to the sky. We catch a glimpse of him, pink-faced and overly polite, but mostly hear his voice superimposed over clouds and sky. He is solicitous, feigning interest about the art and the artist and her career, but his message is clear.

Filming is prohibited in front of Buckingham Palace without a permit, he says. Otherwise, too many journalists would be here shooting all the time. The camera stays on white fluffy clouds and the conversation continues, the artist calmly explaining that she and the filmmaker are not journalists, they are artists. But the boundary is clear. They cannot film here. What is implied: her presence is making people uncomfortable. They are not welcome. The police interaction is disappointing, but perfectly illustrates the artist’s message about the way power tries to erase all contradictory messages.

“Astral Sea III at Buckingham Palace” is now officially concluded. This gorgeous, non-threatening, and healing ritual has been curbed by a representative of the British state. Makonnen delicately folds the long dark cloth affixed with mirrors, and the police car sits there, clearly not going anywhere. The camera jounces down and we catch the side of her face and perhaps a hint of a smile or side-eye. The artist’s spirit is undiminished and her eyes glint like the sparkling glass on fabric.

 

Tsedaye Makonnen, Framed Image #3: "Aberash: You Give Light" (performance documentation), 2019, Photograph
Framed Images from "Aberash: You Give Light" (performance documentation), 2019

More Sondheim info: The Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts and the Walters Art Museum proudly present the 17th annual Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize Finalists exhibition. The prize awards a $25,000 fellowship to a visual artist or group of visual artist collaborators living and working in the greater Baltimore region and is presented in conjunction with the annual Artscape juried art exhibition of the finalists’ work. A panel of three jurors—Naz Cuguoğlu, Michelle Grabner, and Meleko Mokgosi—has selected five finalists for this exhibition and for final review for the prize. The remaining finalists each receive a $2,500 M&T Bank Finalist Award. The winner will be announced on Saturday, July 10.

Named in honor of Janet and Walter Sondheim, the Sondheim Artscape Prize raises the regional visibility of Baltimore as a vibrant urban center that rewards creativity and continues the Sondheim family’s legacy and commitment to Baltimore City.

 

Links: Promotion and the Arts: Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize Finalists
The WaltersSondheim Prize Exhibition dates and programming

Artist Talk on Facebook Live June 24 | Tsedaye Makonnen in conversation with Walters Curator Dany Chan

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