Free to be Wild: Artist Elsa Gebreyesus from Eritrea
Elsa Gebreyesus, artist and sometime activist, originally from Eritrea on the Horn of Africa, pushes up her black rimmed, rectangular framed glasses with a long, elegant forefinger, looks straight at me with soft brown eyes, and says abstractedly, as if as an afterthought, “It’s a blend of my past, my abstract art.” (Pause) “Home is neither here nor there for me. It’s where I am.” Originally from Burma myself, where abstract art is usually called “mad man shit all over the place art,” I nod vigorously.
I first met Elsa, a tall, broad-shouldered woman with close cropped hair and finely chiseled features, when she was talking about marketing art at the Torpedo Factory on the waterfront in Virginia, where artists work in studios during office hours and visitors can drop in and chat. Elsa and the panelists had been invited by Empowered Women International, which helps immigrant artists, men and women, with information and networking ideas.
I looked up Gebreyesus’ artwork using Google. Her big, moody acrylics look gritty with sand, textured with string — one can feel the sun and the desert. They beg to be touched. I found Gebreyesus to be a very accessible person, open to talking about her art and her unusual background.
Eritrea, where she is from, is on the north coast of Africa. Its thirty-year struggle for Independence from Ethiopia ended in 1991. In 1993, after a referendum, it became an independent nation of 4.7 million people, most of whom are desperately poor and mostly farmers. Eritrea got all of the coastline; Ethiopia became landlocked. During the prolonged struggle, Gebreyesus says, Ethiopia had an estimated population of fifty-four million versus the estimated three million of the rebels.
“The lack of international attention and respect forced Eritreans to rely on themselves. Self-reliance is the core principle. It enabled the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) to adopt creative and innovative strategies. It was a truly remarkable feat for Eritrea, a small nation with only a guerilla force, to defeat the Ethiopian army backed by the Soviets.”
Gebreyesus told me the large Eritrean exile communities of the Diaspora, based in Europe and North America, supported the freedom fighters morally and financially. In the euphoric time after Independence, in search of her roots, she went to Eritrea and worked for the EPLF, as a project officer for a women’s organization. She stayed a total of five years, working for one and a half years in the private sector, before returning to the West.
In a short article published in The New Internationalist in 1992, Gebreyesus writes, “The high-pitched ululation splits the quiet morning air at Asmara airport. The woman in front of me pauses to express her joy at returning home… after who knows how many years of exile. For me, it is my first time on native soil. Tears trickle down my face.” In that article, an elated Gebreyesus describes how women also worked side by side with men in the reconstruction effort, and evolved a whole new way of greeting other comrades in arms, literally rubbing shoulders with the men.
“What happened between then and now, to change your views?” I asked. Gebreyesus told me she left in 1997 because she saw that the regime was turning dictatorial, becoming a nation without laws. “There is a fairly decent constitution now, ratified in 1997, but it has yet to be implemented. Now people can enter your home without search warrants.” “Fairly decent constitution,” I smile. Elsa tells me the constitutional process in Eritrea took two years. In Burma, the military junta is still working on it.
Elsa told me that after 9/11, all the signatories of an open letter to the President were jailed. They were all ministers in the Eritrean Government who were calling for better human rights. Three were outside the country at the time the letter was proclaimed; one had to retract.
Elsa told me the story of Aster (pronounced Ast-Stair), wife of one of the Berlin Letter signatories, Petros Solomon. “Petros was already in jail, but Aster was in Arizona, studying for a degree. Her children were there, and she was talking to them by telephone.” (Elsa has two young children). “Then Aster got the idea that she should take a risk, and go back. She asked the Eritrean Embassy people, who were the wrong people to ask, many people said. The ambassador here assured her she would be safe. She was imprisoned on landing. She disappeared between disembarking and the customs. She didn’t even see her family who were waiting outside. Now since September 18, 2001, all the ministers who signed the open letter to the President, plus Aster — there is now a Free Aster Campaign led by Aster’s friends in Arizona — have been held incognito. No one knows where they are all being held, if they are dead or alive. There’s no Red Cross access either.”
Elsa Gebreyesus’ impassioned testimony comes to an abrupt halt. She looks at her coffee cup; I look at mine. “It is worse than Burma,” I mumble. “And all this just because she was Petros’s wife and wanted to see her children. Now everyone is even worse off.”
“I am one of the lucky ones,” Elsa continued, “my family had the means to leave. We were in Canada, and then after I came back from Eritrea in 1997, I married and came to the USA to join my husband. I was able to leave Eritrea (when I realized things were turning totalitarian).” Eritrea is still headed by President Afwerki.
Elsa says, as she does not involve herself with the official community, she has never been harassed in the United States, but there is a lot of harassment going on, sometimes by email. Embassy reps will take pictures of marches and vigils and are believed to keep a black list. Everyone tries to be discreet as a business license could be taken away in Eritrea or other bad things could happen.
Gebreyesus says her art is influenced by many modern African artists in addition to the abstract expressionists. She compares it to jazz and improvisation, where the process, rather than an end result, is the key. “In abstraction,” she says “you start with the beginning and find the end.” She says traditional African music is very ritualistic and much comfort is taken from the repetition of familiar patterns. Text, such as the text of the 1997 constitution, turned upside down, or text from banned newspapers, may be incorporated in Elsa Gebreyesus’ highly textured art.
Elsa works with other artists from both Ethiopia and Eritrea to show their art together in shared spaces. At the end of our interview, she got up and said goodbye to the Ethiopians who own and run the café where we were sitting. She used a common native language — they reached across the counter filled with cakes and quiches, held hands and smiled at each other warmly.
I will have to ask her what language it is later. But maybe the language does not matter after all.
Kyi May Kaung, born in Burma, has a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in Political Economy. She came to America on a Fulbright in 1982 and applied for asylum after the junta’s clampdown on the pro-democracy movement started in 1988. Kyi won the William Carlos Williams Award of the Academy of American Poets in 1993 and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Award for her play “Shaman” in 1996. She has been a Pew finalist twice. Her poem “Eskimo Paradise” will be in the upcoming Norton Anthology of S.E. Asian Poetry. She has two poetry chapbooks — Pelted with Petals: The Burmese Poems and Tibetan Tanka. Other poems have appeared in Meridian Bound, Rattapallax, CrossConnect, Poets’ Attic, Mosaic, and Passport Magazine. After working in international radio and with the Burmese democratic government in exile, Kyi is now working on a novel. Kyi is also a visual artist and has had two one-woman art shows since 2001.
Works by Kyi May Kaung
Free to be Wild: Artist Elsa Gebreysus from Eritrea
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Fiction: The Lovers