17 artists from the diaspora who live and work in cities across the US explore their personal reflections on identity in a traveling exhibition that’s currently on show at The Africa Center in New York.
Having grown up in Ethiopia all his life, Fitsum Shebeshe had never known what it was like to travel outside of the conservative Christian town in Hawassa where he was born. When he went outside the country for the first time, on a visit to Mozambique for an informal arts training program, his eyes were opened to brand new experiences and he wanted to learn more about the possibilities that were waiting for him beyond the borders of his home country, and, indeed, outside of Africa. While working as an assistant curator at the National Museum of Ethiopia, he applied to arts school in the US. Upon acceptance, he was given a scholarship to complete his Masters of Fine Arts in Curatorial Practice at Maryland Institute College of Art.
This set in motion the foundation for Shebeshe to curate an exhibition called 'States of Becoming,' produced by Independent Curators International, and currently on show at The Africa Center in Harlem, New York. A space for Shebeshe to reflect on and interrogate the myriad experiences, thoughts and feelings that go along with being an African in the US, he gathered together 17 artists to explore how relocation, resettling, and assimilation informed the creation of their identities within the contemporary African diaspora.
Based in the Washington DC area, Shebeshe work has centered on roles as both a curator and painter. He is currently the gallery director at Harmony Hall Regional Center in Fort Washington, Maryland, where he spoke to OkayAfrica about his hopes for the exhibition.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were your initial impressions of the US when you first got here?
I had this sort of romanticized image of America we see from Hollywood movies. Of course, it's still nice but in a different way. I moved here in the spring of 2016 and it was hell because it was really cold. On the plane over, the first moment you see what American land looks like, through the window, everything was gray; I could see nothing that resembled green. And I was like, is this actually America? I was expecting flora and fauna. But I got here and there was that excitement of coming to America and being able to get a full ride in an American institution, and so that's how I settled here. So, the project States of Becoming started the moment I landed in the US in a way that it embeds my experience was in terms of the American culture, the way American institutions see Africa in general, and also the state I lived in the US. So those are the three dynamic forces that have actually tremendously shaped the way I view and practice my work.
Fitsum Shebeshe used his own experiences of moving from Ethiopia to the US to inform the exhibition, 'States of Becoming,' which is on at The Africa Center, and will travel from there to other galleries.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist
How did the challenges you faced inform 'States of Becoming'?
I grew up in a conservative Christian culture in Ethiopia. In my upbringing there was no freedom in how people express their desire, how people freely can talk about their identity, in how people can freely voice their concerns or anything like that. So, one thing that made me uncomfortable being in America is the dialogue that was different from where I came from; how people would freely talk about their identity. I went to school, and there was this gay person who was doing a presentation, and I'm pretty sure there are a lot of people who have a different feeling and a different desire but they don't usually talk about themselves. This guy was doing a presentation about how being himself was informing his practice. I was sweating because I had never experienced a conversation like that. I was literally sweating so much that my professors and classmates asked me if I was sick. I still remember that moment so that's why I'm laughing. Now, I'm absolutely fine because I have assimilated into the culture but for me to witness that actually, in this country, people are welcome to talk about themselves however they want to was a great challenge.
On the cultural side, the first time I moved to the US, I went to the Baltimore Museum [of Art] in Maryland – that's where I lived most of my time so I think of it like my second home town next to Addis Ababa and I have a lot of personal and emotional connections to the city – and I went to see the so-called African African art department and left with great disappointment in a way that it says African art, but what I saw was something that doesn't really represent me.
The objects they have on display are, of course, from Africa but they are from a certain region. And for me, those objects being representative of like 54 countries in Africa was something that disappointed me and it's something that was not correct. It was not right. It was the first time that I witnessed how Western institutions view arts from Africa.
Also, my undergrad is art history and when you come here you see a lot of African American artists that have done great work, but they are usually omitted from art history books, and you don't know their existence until you move here, or are in some way exposed to their artwork. Like for example, the Norman Lewis retrospective I saw at PAFA [Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts] in Philadelphia...I also saw a big difference in how these exhibitions are treated differently by the museums.
Fitsum Shebeshe included the work of fellow Ethiopian Amare Selfu in the exhibition.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist
How did you decide on which artists to include – what thread unites them?
Most of them moved here for the same reason that I did, for higher education and then they found a way to stay here, and we have a few first generation diaspora artists in the show who were born here. I have known a few of them for a very long time. For example, this artist called Amare [Selfu], he's from Ethiopia, and I have known him when since when I was in high school. I have witnessed his transformation in who he is - not only from a painting point of view but also psychologically and emotionally. Some of the artists I have been following for a long time, but some of them I found out about through researching the topic for my graduate thesis. In one way or another, each of the artists in the group are untangling a certain point of view, usually negative, about Africa, and also what it means to be in the African diaspora.
The exhibition is on show at the African Center for now and it's going to travel after that, so what do you hope for it?
This is going to be traveling for the next five years, mainly throughout the US and hopefully we'll bring it to Africa as well. It is an ongoing conversation. For me, these artists are creating a unique framing of what it means to be an African diaspora in in America, both from the practical and analytical point of view. So, in a few years, I really hope that this framing can be useful in certain educational settings, for example, the African American Studies, African Studies, even in anthropology studies. So that's where I'm hoping this States of Becoming will be in a few years; that it contributes to the ongoing discourse on the African diaspora.