BLOG #8: An Ethiopian Singer

A longstanding musical tradition exists in Ethiopia. This country experienced its own “Golden Age” of music in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Despite the political upheaval and official rejection of arts during the 1980’s, Ethiopia’s musical heritage has remained strong, and more recently the country has bequeathed its rich tradition to the world through singers such as Ejigayehu Shibabaw.

Shibabaw, known popularly and professionally as Gigi, was born in 1974 in Ethiopia but has lived in the United States since the late 1990’s. She has released seven albums since coming to America, most of which have been produced by her husband Bill Lasswell.

Gigi’s music reflects her life in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Most of the material on her albums is original and delivered in Amharic, or in one case Agaw (a local dialect of Amharic), giving the material an exotic sound almost immediately. At the same time, when compared to traditional Ethiopian artists, like Tilahun Gessesse, her music sounds almost tame. This is partly due to its Western production and partly to the sound of the jazz musicians with whom she records. As a whole, her music has a modern, hip-hop sound to it. Yet the modality and traditional rhythms of the Ethiopian heritage are still there, lending a unique flavor to every track.

Although no two Gigi songs sound alike, making it hard to offer a “typical” example of her sound, all of her material is unmistakably “different”, and it’s easy to imagine her Ethiopian upbringing coloring many of her melodies. This is Gigi’s song Ethiopia from her album Mesgana Ethiopia, released in 2010. I would like to note that, after stumbling upon this album, I liked some of the music so much that I purchased it.

The main thing you notice about this track is something it has in common with much Ethiopian music – the accompaniment is constant. No drastic harmonic changes or polyphonic progressions. There is a feeling of peace and nostalgia as Gigi croons one stanza after another, repeating a flowing melody that seems like audible shape shifting. Although the language of this song is completely foreign, with the exception of the title phrase, it doesn’t even matter. The artist’s emotion in writing and performing in honor of her motherland shines through the music.

Also, here is a live jazz track with Gigi singing – a little longer but just as interesting, even mesmerizing. There are other cultural elements at play in this one, such as East Indian, but if anything these add to the general atmosphere. I really like this track.

Of course, one may rightly assume that Gigi has made many a concession to the Western musical tradition in order to obtain the recording and performing deals that she has. But her identity as an Ethiopian artist still shines, and her music remains – at least to me – a form of exotic hip-hop that I plan to continue to enjoy.

Sidenote: I now appreciate a lot of Ethiopian music, thanks to the research for this post. Some of the really old sounding traditional music from the 1940’s and 1950’s is surprisingly good, and the indigenous Ethiopian musical instruments are unique and fascinating as well.

BLOG #7: A Mexican Muralist

The movement of Mexican Muralism embodied a new approach to art that spread from Latin America throughout the Western Hemisphere over the course of the 20th century. A pioneer of this movement was the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who lived from 1896 to 1974. Siqueiros led a double life as both warrior and artist, and often fought on the wrong side of whatever government he was under and consequently served a number of jail terms. As an artist, he specialized in mural painting, often on vast scales; however, he worked in the traditional form as well, particularly during his years in prison.

In my opinion, a substantial portion of Siqueiros’s output is of high quality and very fascinating. I’m going to give two examples, the first a little tamer and the second more typical for him.

Here is the first picture, Vista Aerea. I was first drawn to it because of its bold colors and sharp yet convoluted outlines. Siqueiros painted this picture in 1968, near the end of his life. It is one of his few landscape pieces, and lacks the political content of much of his work.

Upon viewing this picture, I felt that the scene was familiar, as if it is an abstract reconstruction of an actual vista. Sure enough, a little browsing on the web revealed the  photograph below, a current portrayal of the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. And indeed, there is an eerie similarity between the art and the photograph.

I wasn’t able to find a connection between the artwork and any mention of the famous Incan city online, but I do feel that the layout and shapes of the art contain an uncanny resemblance to the photograph. Since Siqueiros was known to base some of his art upon photographs, the picture may have had a conscious connection to the place, at least in its creator’s mind. However, whatever the inspiration for Vista Aerea, it remains a great example of abstract art from the Mexican Muralist art culture.

A more typical, and striking, example of Siqueiros’s art is Echo of a Scream.

Created much earlier, in 1937, this picture depicts the pain and terror associated with life in many of the Latin countries, particularly Mexico, during that time period. Stylistically, this art better reflects Siqueiros’s common usage of mural techniques. There is an unmistakable three-dimensional quality wrapped up in the shapes and colors. In addition, this painting is done on wood, a base material of which Siqueiros was fond.

The childlike figure and its enlarged counterpart (presumably representing the echo) are the only human features in the work. A feeling of cold mingled with the clanking of rusty iron suggests a world of machinery in which the person is inexorably trapped.  To me, this picture is the perfect example of why art can never be replaced. Such a scene could never exist in the real world, yet there is no finer depiction of the suffering of innocent humanity at the hands of relentless political machines at war.

In a twist of irony, this picture was created during one of the artist’s stints in America, when he ran workshops for young artists. One of these was Jackson Pollock, who would go on to become a pioneer in pure, or true abstract, art.



BLOG #6: Virtual Exhibit on “Land Art”

I’ve always liked dirt and rock– moving it, making shapes with it, and working it with heavy equipment. So it makes sense, at least to me, that I find the post-modern art style known as “land art” to be fascinating.

Land art is a form of environmental art that makes specific landforms intrinsic to the artwork. Often, though not always, these landforms are artificial. The movement’s inception during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw the creation of gigantic works with huge amounts of material, as well as significant environmental impacts.

Since that time, land art has become slightly less ambitious, but remains striking, as in the pictures below.It’s important to understand, however, that some of the seminal works of land art existed before 1970, such as the Spiral Jetty by Robert Simpson, and are of a magnificent scale on the order of many acres. It was the expense involved in creating such large projects that eventually caused artists in this style to limit themselves to rock structures of a more modest size.

First, here are a few examples by Andrew Rogers, an Ameran artist who began by creating sculptures in bronze before moving to larger works in landscapes. In 1998, he began perhaps his most ambitious project, an international sculpting event that involved completing large structures, or geoglyphs, in rock in thirteen countries around the globe. Here is the one he created in Turkey, entitled Rhythms of Life.

The below work, the Bunjil Geoglyph, is in the same series. but it is located in Australia.

Both of these are similar concepts, but what I like is how Rogers managed to tailor each to the surrounding landscape, and the precision he used in creating the shapes. It’s as if they could have existed forever, such is the care he took in giving them a natural appearance.

Below is yet another, the Chili Geoglyph, named for its home country. Notice how in this one, the shapes are thicker and taller, requiring far more rocks and care in construction. This sculpture appears to me to resemble an alpaca, which makes sense considering the country to which this land belongs.

Another artist who employs the land art style is British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Here is his Stone River, created in 2001 near Standford, California.

In a similar vein is the sculpture Wall, done in 1998 in the sculpture park near New York City.

Both of these walls are constructed in drystone, with every stone carefully fitted together with old-time craftsmanship. Their beauty lies not only in the cleanliness of the rock patterns and sinuosity of the shape, but in the way that they interact with their environment. This is a key feature of land art, for while the work of art may be a standalone structure, it is intended to unlock an entire world of meaning drawn from the land and environment around it.

Finally, we come to a very unique work by Goldsworthy. An exhibit done in 2005 at the Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, California, this one is called Drawn Stone.

The intent of the long rectangular structure intersected by a random crack is intended to evoke the consequences of the earthquakes common to California. Goldsworthy masterfully aligns the cracked block with the cracked floor, making all cracks and joints by hand one piece at a time. It’s quite amazing, if you stop to think about it.

While these are only a few examples of recent art in the style, I find them quite representative of a lot of artists today. The urge to alter the earth in such a way as to both discover and create beauty in a scene attracts many to attempt this style. Of course, like any other, it is difficult to work in, and occasionally exists only in a photograh taken of the completed work directly after that completion. However, all that being said, I think this style of artistic expression is, well, fantastic.

Goldsworthy, A. and Thompson, J. (2000). Wall. H.N. Abrams.