Elias Sime Transforms The Commonplace Hastings Contemporary – Jude Montague

Elias Sime, Hastings Contemporary

Elias Sime is one of the best-known artists of his generation from Ethiopia. He was born in Addis Ababa and is a graduate of the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design. His work of collage and sculptural assemblage from a variety of materials that he has been collecting which has also been fed by the vast markets of his home city; for example, the largest open market in the north-west of the city is Minalesh Tera – Minalesh being an Amharic word meaning ‘what do you have’?  Sometimes a team of people help him collect a specific material and other times he buys them from the market.  Sime’s work has used buttons, threads, watches, and paper to create collages that have become increasingly focused. Tacks secure braids woven into surface patterns. And as his work has progressed, it has become increasingly pleasing and impressive. 

When Elias first saw a motherboard, he imagined a city or landscape. He then started collecting a variety of electronic components because he was fascinated by their designs. The more he collected, the more he learned about them. He then started making art with them to express society’s insatiable appetite for electronics.

I was impressed by Sime’s work for many reasons. The level of work is impressive, and it is functional. There is so much hand-making here – cutting, adhesion, nailing, braiding, so many braids, arrangement, colour selection – that the scale of human endeavour is enjoyable to see. It is done with a care that gives satisfaction to the viewers. I would say the aesthetic of the selection is attractive and abstract. Liz Gilmore, Director of Hastings Contemporary, draws attention to the use of red and green in Sime’s work, giving it a vibrant palette. At least in his later work, Sime does not use paint, and all the bright colours are derived from the original colours of the waste material. I chatted with a fellow visitor about how colour is used in electronic equipment in order to display the function of the equipment. Cables, resistors, capacitors, and inductors are all indicated by mandatory and optional colour codes to assist in installation. Sime uses this quality like a dye, not for its stated information but for its colour value. And Sime appeals by his philosophy, which is universal and kind. He has a generous sensibility, which is not about political stance but about improving conditions for all and providing a better quality of life. His use of recycling in his art leads in this direction.

Sime helped to set up a foundation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in an area known as Mekanisa.  The concept, design and construction were done in collaboration with Meskerem Assegued.   It is an art museum, a mixed botanical garden with elementary school farm animals. Many of the buildings are made of vernacular architecture where old and new, traditional and social facilities meet. In addition to the emphasis on art, there is also an indigenous mixed garden and an elementary and middle school. Looking at this centre, you become aware of the importance of land art and earthen architecture in Sime’s and Meskerem’s work. In the makeshift emerging complexity of the city today, the site at  Mount Entoto Zoma Village, an extension of Zoma Museum has become an important organising space to bring together creative approaches to build an organic, low-maintenance structure that is available for the community to enjoy and participate in. Cleansing activities have been an important part of its development, along with sand purification and detoxifying growing systems. I recommend investigating further online as there is so much to say and know and learn about Zoma. For here, I just wanted to give an impression that allows me to comment on how this deep interest and life investment in this compound has influenced choices in Sime’s work.

The structures in Sime’s large pieces echo the shapes of waves and the curve of the earth. The material Sime collects from the market includes broken watches with their circular shapes and other round detritus. But Sime also builds quarter globe structures. Rather than these having a formal meaning, the significance of their shapes is left for interpretation and occupies more of an abstract communication as opposed to a definite, allegorical purpose.
The focus on organic land art is continued in Sime’s collaboration with pottery makers. The Hastings Contemporary team have decided to leave these posts at floor level, protected by invigilation, not by formal fencing, to convey as much as possible of Sime’s inclusive, tactile vision within the formal rooms of a Western white cube gallery. This is a bold curation, and it remains to be seen how it pans out, but Hastings Contemporary does take risks in the drive to include people in the experience of art, and I admire that.

Elias Sime, Hastings Contemporary
Elias Sime, Tightrope: Concave Triangle No 2, 2020, courtesty GRIMM Gallery, Amsterdam

One of the most interesting aspects for me as a settled Hastings resident viewing an exhibition right here in my local town is how these assemblages show the interior electronics of these pieces of equipment. Many electronic and audio-visual manufacturers have been based in Hastings on the Ponswood estate and elsewhere, and some companies are still manufacturing here. Much of this work is labour-intensive and has been made by hand. Many residents here earned their living working for such companies, winding cables by hand, soldering and fixing ends on cable equipment. These interiors are very evocative and poignant as they record the amount of work put in by so many people by hand in workshops locally where we live as well as in workshops around the world. Firms that have been based in Hastings and St Leonards-on-Sea include Kolster-Bands (KB) or ITT, Rediffusion, LG Hawkins and Vox. Workers’ hands that construct the mysterious interiors of our electronic cases that beep and command our rooms are busy in many industrial estates around the world, concealed by drab exteriors and restricted entry.

I would like to finish this short introduction to Sime’s work, which I do recommend visiting, with a note about Sime’s titling. The exhibition is called ‘Eregata’, which is translated as serene, calmness, and tranquillity but with the understanding that minds never truly are at rest. Sime says. “we struggle to stop and sleep because our brains are constantly stimulated by technology – we are constantly moving faster, not slower”. I find it appropriate that we see his work in the Hastings Contemporary because this is a gallery that has not gone down the road of multiple and increasingly immersive and attention-grabbing audio-visual installations, maybe for practical design purposes, but I like this, I have found the intrusion of AV into the art display galleries not unproblematic. A discussion to be continued another time!

Photos ©Artlyst 2024