No Country for Young Men took place at Addis Fine Art in February 2020
I found myself side by side with an elderly Ethiopian man facing the paintings during this show.
“I don’t know what I am supposed to think,” he whispered. We drew close together, trying not to let on that we were the non art intellectuals around.
He said the figures with their deconstructed muscles were beautiful all the same.
The wide canvas of No Country for Young Men showed naked bodies crushed together, as they are in the dinghies bursting with people, launched from Libya to their precarious fates, perhaps not knowing that those who physically survive must then take the invisible journey of identity and belonging when they arrive.
UK has had a big conversation for the last few years about its own identity. What does it require to make it – or not – as a person of colour? Black people report that they need to do twice as well to be recognised, that discrimination, particularly of boys, begins early in school. There is a lack of black male role models.
Yet the trail of migrants continues to weave its perilous way across Africa, fleeing war, conscription or poverty. The fate of many is incarceration in Libya or a lungful of Mediterranean water. Survivors are washed up in Europe, “the lucky ones”, the U.K. being the holy grail for many, because, in cities at least, there is work – cleaning, driving and guarding.
There are many great things about living in the UK. Previous policies on immigration have created multiculturism (not without its problems and one of the driving forces of Brexit), wealth, vibrancy, freedom of speech, creativity and jobs in the more affluent south. I asked myself though, in the presence of these paintings, what is the inner lived experience of a migrant of colour once they arrive alive at their final destination.
This series of figurines were each painted stripped to each muscle. The form was reduced to a piece of meat. Each segment was painted roughly in hues of brown and peach, perhaps representing the way in which each person must acclimatise and adapt to European whiteness. In VVPs III, a gun pointed to a man’s head. Wandering Man II showed a dark figurine curled up on a floral armchair of the type found in an old European home.
A lot is written about identity politics in the U.K. The work makes me uncomfortable inside, although I keep reading. And so I felt this way looking at the paintings, thinking of the internal reality of these people.
The man came back to my side. Something made us whisper even through there was no-one else. He said he had spent time living in Rome. “It is better to try and assimilate,” he said. “Not to become entirely another culture but to respect and get along.”
These ideals seem harder in reality. Many of us want to believe in it, as the world grows, as we globalise, as we face new threats like climate change and viral epidemics that we can only defeat if we can get along.
Many Ethiopians rejoiced when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power. The half Amhara, half Oromo represented peace, free speech and liberalism following years of imprisonment for any opposers of the previous regimes. Now Ethiopia teeters on the brink of ethnic conflict. Achieving ideals of harmony needs conscious effort and buy-in, understanding and a degree of forgiveness. Right now it feels a long way away.