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Art AND: Fitsum Shebeshe

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Fitsum Shebeshe is keeping it personal. The artist and curator who moved to Baltimore from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2016 to attend MICA’s Curatorial Practice program has made his studio work and his curatorial projects about this shift, which exposed him to a wide spectrum of cultural and existential questions.

The cultural shock of the global move was especially extreme for Shebeshe, who had not traveled outside of Africa before arriving in Maryland. Questions of assimilation and relocation remain the subjects Shebeshe addresses in both his planned exhibitions as well as his large scale landscape paintings.

Shebeshe has been a curator for the Harmony Hall Arts Center in Fort Washington, Maryland for the past three years, a position and a community center that are funded by the state arts council. He explains that the center’s budget has dedicated funds for exhibitions which has granted him a certain amount of freedom to curate the kinds of shows he is interested in producing and create a platform for artists he finds deserving— January 2023’s show was a solo exhibition of Baltimore artist Christopher Batten.

Shebeshe has found the flexibility of his current work refreshing after working as an assistant curator at the National Museum of Ethiopia for over three years prior to graduate school. At home in Ethiopia he was more constrained in what kinds of shows he could produce. He says, “the country Ethiopia has been, somehow, socialist, before the current government. There is still that tendency of the people in power wanting nice things said about the government. They want the national museum to showcase people whose paintings show infrastructure, roads, or farming.”

“It’s a censor you are fighting there, there’s always a challenge,” he says. “You find yourself fighting alone. That was always a challenge throughout my time there, but hopefully it has improved.”

 

States of Becoming installation view, The Africa Center, New York, 2022. Courtesy of The Africa Center and ICI. (Photo: Anita Ng)

Having additional context about the role of Ethiopia in the global art community is essential to understanding Shebeshe’s mission as a curator— to bring Ethiopia to the world and vice versa. He explains, “Ethiopia has a long history of Christianity. We have never been colonized and we’ve been isolated from the rest of Africa and the rest of the world for centuries […] We are comfortable living in our own bubble, we have our own language. There is no conversation about race because we are not exposed to that kind of dialogue.”

In contrast, Shebeshe’s experience of the US has been largely influenced by race. He elaborates, “People have misconceptions about me as a Black person and I try to correct them every time.” Curating shows of the work of other artists in the African diaspora has become Shebeshe’s response to the adjustment in his own life.

In addition to his work at the center, Shebeshe is an independent curator. With funds from Independent Curators International (ICI), New York he curated the traveling exhibition, States of Becoming, which opened at the Africa Center in New York City last October and will move on to the midwest and west coast after April and continue traveling until 2028.

The 17 artists from 12 different countries in Africa and one in the Caribbean included in the exhibition have all “gone through the same experience of being born in the United States or moving here within the last three decades,” Shebeshe explains. He’s interested in showcasing different experiences of the African diaspora, and specifically looking at how moving to the United States affects an artistic practice.

Shebeshe has been too busy planning his current exhibition at the Africa Center to work on his own oil paintings lately but he knows he will return to it when he has time because it is a core aspect of his person. About his traditional painting practice, Shebeshe explains that, “I trust in what I do. I do it for a passion and that doesn’t go away.”

He is best known in the DMV for his landscapes which look to American audiences like the scenes of the Western part of our country—Utah, Arizona, perhaps west Texas. But Shebeshe always paints Ethiopia from his memories, “marking this space to say, I’ve been here, I was here,” he explains. His paintings function as dreams about his homeland and he’s inspired by his grandmother who he says also used to “live in some of her memories.” Shebeshe’s large scale paintings are a way for him to place Western audiences in the vast landscape of his childhood. He’s uninterested in subjects that lack a personal connection and as a result, takes portrait commissions primarily of people he knows personally.

On Zoom Shebeshe and I discussed our mutual appreciation of landscape painting, how curation has the potential to unite across borders, and how hard it is to reject artists when jurying a show.

 

Place: Zoom
Age: 35
Waring: Top: Nike running Dri-fit, Bottom: Calvin Klein chino slim fit, Shoe: Adidas ultraboost dna

What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading?

Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B. F. Skinner is my favorite book I’ve read. The book critiques traditional ideas of freedom, dignity, and the self and offers a behavioral perspective on human behavior and society. According to the author, traditional ideas of freedom and dignity are based on the idea of an inner self that makes choices and exerts control over behavior. He claims that this viewpoint is not scientifically valid because behavior is determined by environmental factors and the consequences of that behavior. This, I think, is a highly influential and controversial argument made by the author, and the book is thought-provoking. That’s why I like it.

You’re a multifaceted individual— you’re both an artist and a curator. Can you put into context for me which came first? Chicken or the egg? Or have you always done both?

I started as a painter back in Ethiopia and I have been painting since I was really young. When I got the chance, I went to school— we have one painting school in Ethiopia everyone wishes to attend— and that was my introduction to art history.

After I finished my undergrad, I was able to get a job at the National Museum of Ethiopia as an assistant curator. That’s how I started curating. I think my visual studies helped me in making certain decisions and visual arrangements and my art history studies, on the other hand, helped me navigate more how history related artworks in a museum. It was a learn-it-on-the-job process for me, especially the first two years right after I got the job. But it was a wonderful, easy transition for me to transform from being a painter to curating.

That’s wonderful you got a great job right out of undergraduate, that doesn’t always happen here in the states! Did you ever have a moment in those first two years out that you were describing when you were working at the museum where you were like, this is gonna work? Did you ever question, how am I going to be able to make this work?

I worked for a little over three years actually, as an assistant. Our museum is a combination of people who have vastly different experience in terms of what they do, and some have a political agenda. There is always fighting if you want to actually do something because there is an expectation my supervisors had [of what kinds of shows we were going to produce].

I came up with ideas and I had enthusiasm to execute but there was a lot of pushback in the beginning. That was always my biggest challenge, trying to please my supervisors at the same time [wanting to do] what I envision doing. I don’t think Ethiopia is the only place like this though— I have colleagues across Africa, Europe, and even here in the United States who sometimes complain about it. There is a certain predetermined expectation and you have to work hard to meet that.

 

Plein Air Sketch by Fitsum Shebeshe
Still Life by Fitsum Shebeshe

This is kind of an obvious question, but do you miss Ethiopia? Do you plan to move home at some point? What about living in the DMV works for your career and your career goals?

I have really, really good friends I met here, and also there’s a large Ethiopian community in this area. I always have felt at home, but of course I miss my close family members and my colleagues in Ethiopia. I really believe that I have more experience [and opportunity] to influence people here now.

I think that I will at some point go back and share my experience but not right now. I have never been back since I finished grad school, I don’t know the situation, it’s been tough the past few years with the civil war. But at some point, I have family there, and I plan to visit and share my experience with them at least.

Your experience as an Ethiopian living in the United States informs the shows you curate and the themes you explore. Can you address how your identity and experiences have influenced your latest projects?

I come from an introverted culture where there are taboos around individual expression, particularly when it comes to personal choices that go against the grain. Coming from this background, I was confronted with the realities of uncomfortable conversations, such as sexual orientation. On the other hand, it was a big challenge for me to adjust and learn the limits or opportunities that come with being a Black person in America.

As a curator, my perspectives have been influenced by these experiences, which have informed how I view my environment and how I respond to this new environment. Cultural assimilation vis-à-vis authentication of identity has taken up a lot of space in my desire for exploration in the trajectory of my career as a curator. My current traveling exhibition, States of Becoming, embodies these experiences, as well as those of the 17 participating artists, that result from relocation, resettling, and integrating into a new society. States of Becoming is currently on view at The Africa Center in New York City through April 2, 2023.

What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for by your friends?

I want my friends to remember me for being straightforward. I typically speak bluntly and this sometimes makes my friends uncomfortable! Haha.

 

Station North (plein air), 2021 by Fitsum Shebeshe
Commissioned Portrait, oil on canvas, by Fitsum Shebeshe
Artist in studio by Justin Tsucalas
Cultural assimilation vis-à-vis authentication of identity has taken up a lot of space in my desire for exploration in the trajectory of my career as a curator.
Fitsum Shebeshe

I’ll ask you a question on behalf of my students: How do you decide an artist is ready, or you were saying previously, “deserving of a solo show”? What do you kind of look for? What’s your process of curating someone either into a group show or a solo show?

I follow their practice in some way. I go to exhibitions, I follow them on Instagram. I think it is a great open resource. I see their progress and I try to be non-biased. But sometimes, it’s hard to be, because we are human and oftentimes I try to isolate my personal feelings toward a certain work of art. I try to separate work and personal interest and approach it neutrally. When I’m convinced to do a show, I’ll go the distance even to convince the stakeholders to get whatever resources are needed.

Do you pursue any hobbies? Do you think that these hobbies have any influence or impact on your work or do you view them more as a stress relief or way to unwind?

I enjoy hiking, camping, traveling, and visiting historical sites. When I go hiking in the parks around my area, I usually bring small canvases with me and paint the scenery as I see it. That’s probably why I enjoy hiking so much. Aside from the excitement of visiting new places, I believe that travel in general helps my creativity as an artist.

What’s the best career advice you received? How about the worst?

The best advice I’ve ever received was from a curator in Ethiopia early in my curating career. I’ve always admired and appreciated their work. They told me several times that I have the potential to achieve my dreams (both as a curator and an artist) and that I should go for it. Ironically, the same person also gave me the worst advice. I was planning on coming here to attend MICA, but this person insisted that I go to Europe instead, or else our friendship would end. I asked them why, but I didn’t get an explanation, so I ended the friendship and came here.

Can you speak a bit about your experience jurying shows? Do you ever get introduced to artists that way that you kind of end up curating them into something later, or has that not really happened for you?

Back when I was in Ethiopia, the museum received a lot of applications each year and part of my job was to curate a show in a contemporary space based off the applications. We would do a blind jury. Knowing art history in some way helps because I would see a lot of European painters’ influence in our artists’ work.

So for the museum, we used a certain framework when it comes to selecting an artist. For example, is this an original work, is this work done within the last two years? And we review the works based off of those criteria. When we would announce some artists got really excited, and some would take it personally. I wish we had more space so that we could invite everyone!

Do you believe in astrology and if so, what insights can your signs give our readers into your personality and mindset?

I’d say not so much. But I can be a typical Libra at times, and I notice that influencing my decision-making and the way I think about the world.

What are the last three emojis you used? Have you given up emojis?

The last three emojis I used were a face with a tongue sticking out and tightly closed eyes, a red heart, and a face with raised brows. I’m still not over emoticons. I occasionally engage in emoji trash talk with friends, both here and in Ethiopia.

 

This story is from Issue 14: Environment, available here.

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