Through an Artist's Eyes

Article excerpt

In Eritrea, an American painter finds friends, suffering, and inspiration.

The artist's journal shows how scenes of everyday life and the upheaval of war are transformed into vibrant art.

I first came to Eritrea, in 1994, to interview artists for a book project, Africa: Women's Art, Women's Lives. Those artists became my guides to Eritrea's war-weary past.

Villages are the pulses of this small Horn of Africa nation. Frequently invited to share tea or coffee in adobe or stone and thatch homes, we sketched the mothers preparing tea or weaving baskets, children caring for other children or fetching water at the village pond. There were sheep and goat herders carrying long guide sticks, men plowing with oxen or leading camels to market. In the process, my eyes, hands, and heart merged with the pen lines that eventually filled many sketchbooks.

In 1995 I returned to Eritrea to present an art workshop at the Asmara School of Art. In all my 32 years of teaching, I had never experienced such enthusiastic students. They ranged from 10 young teachers in training to the majority of older, seasoned soldiers. The workshop culminated in an exhibit of more than 100 detailed pen drawings and acrylic paintings. Impressed by Eritreans who valued art in war as well as peace, I kept returning to visit friends and to continue our sketchbook ventures. In my studio, select travel sketches placed on a wall near the easel became catalysts for the large acrylic paintings that emerged later in my home studio.

Ordinary scenes of everyday life filtered through my imaginative process. Saho Basket Weavers (this page) was inspired by sketches made at Saho mountain villages near Senafe, as women sat outside their stone and thatch homes weaving baskets, weaving dreams. During the brief 1991-98 period of peace, Eritreans organized themselves to terrace the steeply eroded mountainsides with endless ribbons of rock. Erosion, the result of a deliberate deforestation program, was another form of war conducted during the long Ethiopian occupation. In Reshaping the Land (cover and page 21), a Kunama mother plants corn between the rock terraces.

In Asmara, my sketching began early as most often I was awakened by the pre-dawn imam's call to the faithful to pray at the mosque, followed by the ringing of Catholic and Coptic church bells. Frequently I joined mothers and grandmothers as they walked to an expansive plaza in front of the stately St. Mary's Coptic Church. There the Virgin painted in shades of pale blue greeted them from a mural high above the church entryway.

Wrapped in traditional white cotton shawls against the morning chill, these Tigrinya women began each day with prayers and meditation. Their open palms were raised high toward the Virgin, held before their chests, or placed on the ground as they knelt and kissed the earth. I never tired of sketching their statuesque forms in diverse prayer gestures or their intense features, filled with the painful memory of loss, now silhouetted by the first glimmer of daylight.

Their soulful forms are portrayed in Coptic Altar, a triptych. In the center (facing page), the Virgin is based on a sketch of a village woman with a newborn lamb in her arms. I also included men playing the big ceremonial drums at the conclusion of the Sunday Mass. Their reverberations resounded like a communal heartbeat.

Experiencing Eritrea year after year through many seasons has been like a seesaw, first rising high like a good harvest, then weighted down by a senseless war. It was impossible for me to remain immune to the suffering of people who were more than statistics: They were friends. During 1998 and 1999, I returned to sketch in war zones and refugee and relocation camps. Gradually, a second group of paintings began to emerge--"Eritrea-Ethiopia: Prayers for Peace," a series created to portray grief as well as hope.

This series includes images inspired by earlier journeys to Ethiopia's ancient Christian and Coptic churches of Auxum, Gondar, and Lalibela. …