Elias Sime (Photo: Brett Moen. Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York)
“Humans are the bridge between the natural and built environments. We cannot be separated from either one.”
Elias Sime has a lot to say in word, deed and the art that he makes. The artist, born in 1968, is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His first major museum survey show, “Tightrope,” is now at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, where it is available to view virtually until the museum deems it safe to reopen. Curated by Tracy L. Adler, director of the Wellin Museum at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, “Tightrope” presents more than 25 works, most created in the last three years. A smaller group of earlier works has been included as well.
Sime’s recent mixed-media constructions feature bits and pieces of reclaimed electronic components, many of which may not be immediately recognizable to viewers, as they normally reside in the interior of our computers and devices. Motherboards, colorful insulated wire, often painstakingly braided, as well as the ubiquitous keyboard key have been redefined in his work. However, Sime’s longtime collaborator and frequent translator, anthropologist Meskerem Assegued, points out that the artist is not making a statement about the recycling of the material he utilizes. Sime explains, “I transform things I find into art. I prefer things that have been touched or been in contact with people.”
The panels of both “Tightrope: Silent 1” and “Tightrope: Silent 2” are completely covered in keyboard keys. Use and age have turned their original white into all shades of ivory and pale yellow, resulting in a dappled and beautiful surface. In another work, “Tightrope: Familiar Yet Complex,” a head-like shape created of vibrant wire stands out against a backdrop of keys, calling to mind ancient Greek mosaics. Motherboards silhouetted on dark backgrounds could easily be mistaken for aerial views in “Tightrope 3.” Sime has said, “. . . when I first saw a motherboard, it reminded me of a city, of landscapes, as well as of the people in the factory who assembled it.”
Originally the theme of “Tightrope” was one of attempting to balance the rapid changes a city undergoes as its urban core grows and develops. Sime realized that tension can also be exacerbated by the expansion of and dependence on technology in our lives. “My work reclaims these machines in a tender way, as I am not in opposition to technology. It’s about how to balance it with “real” life. We’ve become off-balance. My title for my series of collages, “Tightrope,” 2013, has a double meaning. It’s about this equilibrium, but I also wanted it to evoke a string: If you pull it too tight, it will break,” Sime explains.
Sime begins each work with a sketch. “The moment I come up with the idea for a work, I begin and finish the work in my head. Then I sketch it out on small scraps of paper,” he says. “The biggest challenge is collecting the material. Making the art is easy; I was born an artist. But finding materials that can express your feelings is hard.”
An important source for the material Sime uses is the Addis Ababa Mercato, an open-air flea market about three miles square which is said to be the largest of its kind in Africa. Sime’s large-scale works require a lot of reclaimed electronic components and many of the items he prefers are becoming harder and harder to locate. Since he is very particular about using say, the same color of wire throughout a construction, it may take him years to find all that he needs in order to finish a work.
In the past, he received some assistance from the children who live in his neighborhood. They would bring bits of wire and other items he might employ in his constructions; if there was something he could use, he would pay them for it. But he also wanted to teach the children about the value of money and a sense of responsibility. He would ask each one what they had done with the money he had previously paid them. If they had helped their family or bought school supplies, he would be more inclined to purchase more from them.
With Sime’s financial success, he and Assegued decided to build and establish the Zoma Museum, a combined exhibition space and school. The contemporary building was constructed by Sime and a team of workers using traditional mud hut building methods. A second museum was completed last year on the grounds of the royal palace.
James Cohan, the New York dealer who has known the artist since 2015 and has sold many of his works calls Sime and Assegued’s efforts on behalf of the community “a gift.” “Not only is Sime totally dedicated to making exquisite objects and pushing his aesthetic from one body of work to the next, but he is fully engaged with his community and constantly helping others,” Cohan said in a recent email. “The artwork which functions on an international level, being collected and exhibited in Asia, Australia, Europe and the U.S., has fueled the enormous gift in the form of Zoma he and his collaborator Meskerem Assegued have provided for Ethiopian society.”
“Elias Sime: Tightrope” continues at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., through Jan. 31. The museum is currently closed and is making the exhibit available virtually until it is safe to reopen. For more information, 816-753-5784 or www.kemperart.org.