till 23th September 2007

Engdaget Legesse - Creator of Magic Pillars

By Indrias Getachew

"I do not want my work to look like anyone else's. I want to have my own style. In order to find yourself you have to explore a lot, you have to try many things. From the things that I have done so far if I claim this (magic pillars) as mine I would not be embarrassed."

This artist's journey begins in the recesses of his mind. An idea is born. Then, like a seed planted in fertile soil, it develops and grows. Fertilized and weeded, if it survives the vicissitudes of the creative mind, what was once a vulnerable sapling becomes stronger and firmer. Ultimately, if it is so fortunate as to reach maturity, it may even bear fruit. To bear the fruit of the mind, and present it in a visually compelling manner, that then becomes the artists raison d'être. To take that which is imagined behind closed eyelids and to realize it in physical form, and ultimately to share what has been created with the rest of the world. It is a process that has been going on for millennia.

In Ethiopia, cultural expression has resulted in the evolution of a variety of unique and rich artistic traditions. Ethiopian Orthodox ecclesiastical traditions -paintings on icons, manuscript illustrations, as well as mural work in churches, are increasingly known in international art circles. Little known to the outside world, however, are the traditions of non-Orthodox cultures, including the totem poles of the Konso.

The Konso, who make their home in Ethiopia's Omo Valley, erect totem poles in commemoration of deceased members of their community. It is an ancient tradition that adds a colorful element to both the cultural as well as the physical landscape. In terms of modem art, it is also the inspiration for a new line of work for one of Ethiopia's dynamic and rising artistic talent.

Inspired by this Konso tradition with its roots in pre-recorded Omo Valley history, Engdaget Legesse has embarked upon a modern, 21st century journey. He is taking up where Konso traditions left off and marrying their concepts for commemorating those who have passed from this world with the living and vibrant 'ethnic' colors, designs, and motifs that define the cutting edge of African, as well as post-modern artistic expression. It is interesting that Engdaget began producing this evolved form of Ethiopian art while on a visit to Germany. Engdaget calls these pieces 'Magic Pillars' and has presented them both in Ethiopia and in some of the finest art galleries in Europe. Over the past year Engdaget has evolved his two dimensional wooden pillars to include creations made of ceramic tiles, and more recently three dimensional pillars utilizing all 360 degrees of the tree trunk.

Each totem pole is a singular creation. The nature provided 'canvas' endows each piece with its own unique texture and form. Taking this as his launching pad Engdaget endows each pole with its own characteristics. The process is almost divine as by the time he has finished he has created a piece of art with its own personality and a human name. "These poles become like people to me," Engdaget explains, "each one has its own character. Sometimes they are like the people I know in my real life, other times they are characters that I create in my mind. I imagine them to be real." Engdaget has turned the Konso tradition into a celebration of life. Creating something that has that element of reality and to be able to transmit this reality to an outside audience is one mark of genius. To bridge cultural expressions of various ethnic groups, to create links between the industrialized north and developing south, to connect peoples of diverse backgrounds and experiences, that is the wonderful role of the artist. Engdaget Legesse is one such artist who has taken on this responsibility with much gusto.

Engdaget has been pursuing a very busy exhibition schedule. Over the past year he has appeared in numerous group exhibitions. Magic Pillars were also included in a group show of Ethiopian artists held in Berlin. Engdaget's commitment is not only to grow and evolve as an artist, but also to promote cultural exchange between Ethiopia and the rest of the world.

Engdaget was born in Addis Ababa in 1971. After graduating from the Addis Ababa Fine Arts school in 1993 he has been working as a studio artist and exhibiting extensively. Early in his career he worked with the St. George's Gallery, Addis Ababa's premiere art location, before venturing into a totally independent career. Internationally he has exhibited in Djibouti, France, Germany, and Italy, and his work has entered some of the more respectable collections around the world.

Engdaget's agenda for the twenty first century includes more in the way of cross-cultural exchange, bringing the flavor of Ethiopia to the outside world. Within Ethiopia he sees it as a vital need for art and creativity to grow and make an impact. In this regard, the placement of art in public spaces for the aesthetic enhancement of Ethiopian urban spaces, art to promote awareness of the various societal issues that are of critical importance, art to catch peoples attention and put forward a message, these are his immediate objectives.
Creativity is one of the essential factors that needs to be nurtured in a developing society. Having the products of a creative process all around will no doubt influence the creativity of members of society in general. In this regard the potential contribution of artists in creating a positive future for Ethiopia should be recognized and exploited. We look forward to seeing more from Engdaget.

From the Addis Tribune, 24.11.2000