Friday, August 9, 2013

Universal art from an African heart

Settling in: Tamirat Gebremariam, the Ethiopian-born artist who came to Melbourne via Egypt, with works from Face. Photo: Pat Scala
Tamirat Gebremariam likes to lose himself in art, but often notices something odd.
"If I go to the National Gallery of Victoria, there is only me. No other African people are walking around looking at the art."
He can't explain the absence of faces such as his. In the experience of isolation felt by many migrants, he speculates: "Some might think this kind of thing doesn't belong to us."
Yet this Ethiopian-born migrant for one relishes the gallery and all it represents. For him, art has been the means of settling in a new place. Having moved from Ethiopia to Egypt, Sydney and finally Melbourne, he knows about isolation – but each time has relied on the oils and linen to root himself in a new home.
His latest works will be shown in a solo exhibition called Faces at the Fo Guang Yuan Art Gallery. Subtitled Features of an Urban, African Australia, the work reflects the artist's hope that migrants can feel they belong to a "mainstream" Australia, however that may be defined.
Faces is part of a series of exhibitions organised by Multicultural Arts Victoria that encourages artists to share their heritage.
Gebremariam's portraits are large faces, grand in size and execution. The face is his. Focusing on himself, he traces gradual physical and psychological changes – "just as landscapes change", he suggests.
In several, the face has a steady, calm gaze, without emotion. In another the artist's eyes are closed, brow slightly creased, peaceful, possibly asleep. "That was relief!" he says of the work painted soon after he received a scholarship to attend the Victorian College of the Arts.
The portraits follow his previous huge abstract landscapes, including some inspired by the Victorian bushfires.
At VCA, lecturer Bernhard Sachs saw in Gebremariam the makings of a fine painter. His landscapes "echo the memory rather than the description of a place", says Sachs. In his view, all of Gebremariam's work is self-portraiture in some sense: "Memories are living persistences."
Gebremariam's experience in Australia has made him an optimist. Without minimising the struggle of other migrants he knows, he says: "Australia has been supportive and I want to encourage others in my community. We have to celebrate what we are, instead of focusing on negative things."
Yet he has travelled a long road. Completing a fine arts degree in Addis Ababa, he moved to Egypt in 1993. In Cairo he struggled to fit in to the Arab-speaking community. In time, through a church group he began teaching and creating art works, and the transition from one land to another became easier.
In 2000 he moved to Sydney to study art but soon heard Victoria was more multicultural. Finally, he settled in Melbourne and met other African-Australians, studied and began his wanders through the city's galleries.
Feeling at home at art school, he could still be thrown by the comments of his peers. "An Australian girl looked at my work and said 'Where's the African art?' I think she expected to see masks! I don't ask if there is African or Australian art because there are influences everywhere. I am an African-Australian artist."