Recently I had a lengthy conversation with master painter Michael Adonai. What was planned as a brief interview expanded and in the middle of the conversation, I discarded the list of questions that I had prepared and let the flow of conversation lead wherever it may. Below is an abridged version of the lengthy conversation that I had with him
Saleh “Gadi” Johar.
I have followed the work of Michael for many years and always enjoyed his bold use of colors. His “Coptic Art” style brings to life the ancient form of art that was developed within the church tradition, as such, his work is authentic and builds an art form over a millennia old.
Michael wants to share his work with the readers of awate, and I want to share Michael the artist and his art with the readers of awate.com. That will not be a difficult undertaking because Michael has been an established artist for decades, he is a known quantity who has been, “scribbling with water color brushes before [he] began to go to school.”
Currently, Michael is holding an exhibition in Melbourne, Australia. The show was scheduled for June 14 to 27 but has been extended by one week and will stay open until July 4, 2014. He has another exhibition scheduled for November this year and he is worried for the shortage of time to be prepared. He says, “I like to paint slowly, I don’t like to rush.”
Tell me Michael, why are you an artist? Why not a mechanic or an economist, for example?
Michael was influenced by his elder brother Berhane Adonai, a renowned painter. In the early seventies, Berhane Adonai painted at home and Michael says, “I don’t know what I else I would have become growing up surrounded by Berhane’s brushes and paints.” When Michael joined the liberation struggle Berhane was also there teaching painting to young painters. Michel was one of his students and feels lucky he had his brother and others as teachers. Michael says, “I loved painting with passion and it became my life.” Talking about his brother he says, “he is my teacher and my mentor.” Berhane literally raised Michael because their father died when Michael was too young.
That is why he was destined to become an artist, and his younger sister also followed on the footsteps of her elder brothers–Elsa Adonai is also a painter. That is the influence of Berhane on the Adonai family.
Michael has travelled and exhibited his work in many parts of the world, which of his exhibitions does he consider the best? Michel quickly replied, “Andorra!”
In 2012, UNESCO invited top artists from 30 countries to represent their countries and exhibit their work in Andorra! Michael was selected to represent Eritrea, he explains: “Of course, the exhibition I am holding right now in Melbourne is equally important to me, but in Andorra I was an ambassador of my country and that is not something I take lightly… it is a big responsibility and I did represent my country to the best of my ability.” That is why Michel fondly remembers Andorra, the tiny principality sandwiched between Spain and France.
He further explains: “The work that was exhibited in Andorra is still touring the world in 2014. But my current exhibition in Australia has other important meanings…maybe it is because it is my first exhibition as a refugee, and I am expressing my work without any limitation on my freedom, I consider it a different and an important exhibition….no shadows are following me, no one is controlling, no one is telling me what to do or what to present… as an artist I am expressing myself through my work in an atmosphere of freedom.”
The theme of the exhibition in Melbourne where Michel is currently exhibiting his work, is: I DID NOT CHOOSE TO BE A REFUGEE.
I asked him: Who made a choice for you to become a refugee, Michael?
“Of course I did not choose to be a refugee… the victims of Lampedusa also didn’t choose to be refugees. That was not my choice but I reached a stage where I faced risks and couldn’t stay in Eritrea… I didn’t choose to be a refugee, the choice was made by those who have made life in Eritrea so narrow and so tight that one has to flee from the suffocating environment to find a space of freedom… they made the choice for all refugees to leave their country. The oppressors made the choice for all of us.”
Michael’s latest work is a tribute to the victims of Lampedusa, and according to many people I talked to, “he has represented the tragedy in an excellent work of art.” I feel the same, he has contributed significantly in spreading awareness concerning the sufferings of Eritrean refugees. His latest work, “Lampedusa” is a 152 cms by 62 cms oil painting, an homage to a pregnant Eritrean victim who gave birth while drowning last year a few miles off the Italian island of Lampedusa together with over 350 Eritrean refugees. When rescuers pulled her out of the sea they found her dead baby still connected to her by the umbilical cord. Lampedusa is a painting overwhelmed by different shades of marine blue paint–the depiction is so powerful it is haunting!
Your work is highly priced, and with that in mind, do you think your work is commercialized enough? And, do you suffer from theft of your work–copyright violations, reproduction of your work without your consent, etc.?
I could feel him chuckling, and he explained:
“If there is money and fame that one earns, if it is a result of hard and passionate work, then I consider it good… my focus is in expressing my thoughts and ideas on canvas without worrying too much about other things, and what follows–fame and money–does not concern me when I work.
“During the struggle era I was also painting, telling the story of the struggle, the culture of the people and scenes of battles, and such works. My concern was to make sure that I reflect my ideas properly to achieve my goal of getting the message of the struggle across.”
Awareness about intellectual property is not widely spread in our region including Eritrea. Many wrongly think, if something is on the Internet, it can be used willfully. I wanted to know if some people copied your work without your consent and reproduced it, for example, on T-Shirts, mugs and the like, what do you think about that?
Michel took a deep breath, he said: “In 2009 I took a two-month course on copyrights in Switzerland. I found that a good opportunity and learned about the legal implications and meaning of copyright and intellectual property… I know about that, I am aware of it.
“You see–I don’t know how you will present this–let me tell you a story: In the nineties, the Eritrean government was renovating an old Italian governmental palace, and they needed pieces of arts to adorn the walls, and also wanted to paint the walls and ceilings. In 1997, President Isaias ordered me to do the work for the palace… I am sure you have read how Michelangelo was suspended, laying on his back while painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel! For five months I went through similar experience, suspended on ropes, on scaffoldings and ladders doing the work. The president personally selected eleven of my paintings that he liked to be hanged on the walls of the palace. These paintings were my best and I consider them masterpieces. The presidential office never acknowledged my work or my paintings, and they didn’t pay me at all. A man named Eritros was managing the project of renovating the palace…they took my paintings, my five-month worth of work, and they let me go with nothing, it was just like grabbing a handful of water!”
I interrupted him, “didn’t you have a work contract or sales price agreement?”
There was a verbal promise that they would advance me with money when I travelled abroad for exhibition and the like and they promised to deduct what the advance from the amount due to me from the government. Indeed they advanced me some money when I travelled, but . strangely enough, when I returned they made me pay the advance but never paid me my dues. Eritros was in charge of that, maybe he is around in America or elsewhere, he knows that very well. They took my canvases and work… they just confiscated my sweat, my time and creative work. So, you asked me about copyrights, the government took my work and they used it on T-Shirts, on school exercise books and other things as they wished. They print my work as they wish without my permission and collect the revenues… I didn’t get a cent out of that… and there was nothing I can do about it. That is how artists are treated in Eritrea.
What I just told you is a brief sample of my experience, it may help to understand how copyright and intellectual property is treated in Eritrea…just as an example.
Speaking Up, Good News, and Bad News
Since most of the news coming out of Eritrea are negative and depressing, when Eritreans see some of their own gain fame and become successful in what they do, and attract the attention of other people, such news ameliorates the demoralizing news coming from Eritrea. Everyone feels when their country is country mentioned in a nice way. In a short time, Michael has helped Eritreans in that aspect. I talked to a few people in Australia and I can feel how proud they are for having Michael among them changing the perception of their country, and telling the world that Eritreans have a large pool of artists and skilled people—that contributed in helping Eritreans regain their damaged collective self-confidence. They are happy and they feel proud of Michael.
Michael, you cannot be an artist in seclusion, an artist has to take his work to the public, you cannot have a tableau finished so that you can keep it in your house to enjoy it alone? You have come out and you are speaking out without fear. Is that dictated by the nature of your work? I mean, if you were a mechanic, a medical doctor or an economist, after leaving the system, would you have come out like you are doing as an artist, or you would have remained silent, hidden from the public like many others? Would you have come out if you were not an artist?
I think being an artist you know that your work has to be presented to the public, but my coming out to express my thoughts freely is not because of that…being an artist doesn’t necessarily help you speak up. I could have done it in a different way if I wanted to. For example, I would have painted landscapes, animals and images from nature that attracts Australians and still show my work in public while concealing my true feeling so that I don’t ruffle the feathers of the government by talking about the bad situation in Eritrea. I could have done that easily and focused painting safe images… braided women, camels, cultural faces and costumes, sell them, and stay away from any trouble and stay on the safe list of the government.
In my case, I live for my artistic message. My behaviors is dictated by the content of my message. And I carry the message of my people as I have always done: the suffering, the limitless oppression, I simply tell the story of my people. I grew up carrying and reflecting these kinds of messages and I still carry limitless love for my people… I will firmly stay the course, always trying to do whatever I can to help.
Though you have not been in Australia for too long, there are beginner artists. Do you mentor young artists? What are you doing in that aspect?
I have trained young artists, 15-17 age group and I have been doing community service teaching many other artists as well. I have also appealed to the public to help me find ways to transfer my skills to the young. Luckily I have the full support of the African and Eritrean communities in Melbourne, including the full support of Australian authorities who cater to the diverse communities living in Australia. I have found full cooperation on this aspect and I am very grateful for that.
I don’t want to get you out from your role as an artist but I like to ask you a question that is relevant to any citizen regardless of the occupation or field of passion. Can you give me an assessment of the Eritrean situation from an artist’s point of view, an artist’s bird’s eye observation, if you will?
You see Saleh, I will be 52 very soon. Since I was a child all my life was spent on arts, colors, paints, brushes and canvases… that was always my special little world. When I reflect on what we went through as a people–the fear, the intimidation and terror—which I can’t say others cannot understand, but now living for an extended time in a society blessed with all sorts of freedoms, expressing my views freely without any kind of fear, gives me a better perspective to understand and explain our situation. As a society we are introvert, we do not have a habit of expressing ourselves freely and now we are even prevented from doing that—a while ago I read an article you wrote along those lines…
Sometimes one has to face a mirror and tell himself stuff just to release what is trapped in the heart… it is nice to have an environment of free expression. Unfortunately in Eritrea, the gag of freedom of expression has greatly weakened arts… and art is all about free expression!
According to the prevailing norms in Eritrea, everyone can express the view of the rulers but not his own views. One can write what they want and not what he wants. Your mind becomes their mind and not your mind. In such a situation art suffers a lot.
Many Eritreans say that there is oppression and lack of freedom of expression in Eritrea but they have not suffered from these lack of freedoms personally since they live in the free world and they can express themselves freely. But you lived under the system and you have firsthand experience of life in Eritrea. Now that you are out, and expressing yourself freely, what do you think is lacking from Eritreans? Why were we not successful in ending the suffering of our people? Can you share your thoughts, your perspective?
Unfortunately I see a few things that I do not like. I think we should make patriotism our priority and center of attention…and shun narrow mindedness and cliquish approach to solving our problems that is preventing us from bringing about change. Those who are inside Eritrea are hostages, but the Diaspora has no excuse for not focusing on what is important. Artists in general—singers, poets, writers and painters—should work in a focused way in order to have an impact… I acknowledge a lot has been done and a lot has been accomplished, but we cannot pat ourselves on the back until we achieve the goal of freeing our people. We should make our influence felt in the communities where we live, not limited to targeting Eritreans only, but targeting other audiences as well.
Now that you have represented the story of the victims of Lampedusa, what is your next project?
I have several ideas on the pipeline, some are on progress and others are waiting for the availability of time and the flow of creative juice to better present them, but it is mainly an issue of time.
Can I ask you something?
Yes, go ahead…
I wish you can depict three things in your arts: 1) present the entire Eritrean struggle, Haraka, Awate’s 1961 armed struggle, the PLF’s EPLFs and ELF is one chain of struggle that ended in 1991 and we all own the legacy be it good or bad. But after 1991, since the PFDJ chose to rule on its own, without the consent of the ruled, without a mandate, it bears full responsibility for the period following 1991. I am not sure but I think that can communicated through your arts. Second, I would like see a depiction of the suffering of the youth, slave-labor victims particularly in the mining sector. Third, the plight of Eritrean refugees who have been stranded in Sudanese refugee camps since 1967, forgotten by most of us and disowned by the PFDJ and the UNHCR. Maybe visit the camps if you get the chance, that would help you mirror their plight properly. Can you consider that, dedicate some works for these three subjects?
These are important subject, as an artist such ideas are very helpful and I always think of many such projects. When I get a chance I would like to talk with you and others about such issues and I believe it is my responsibility to pay more attention to such issues. We have so many problems in Eritrea and what you mentioned are part of them. But you are right, the situation of the old refugees and information about them is limited but I have knowledge about their sufferings, I have been following it from many sides and your appeal is well taken. I will consider it more.
A Home For “Lampedusa”
Today we are doing this interview; you have been featured on many other media outlets and now you will be featured on awate.com. What do you expect from the readers? How do you want them to react?
I can’t say much on that but honestly I am not looking for emotional support though naturally like everyone else I appreciate good words and encouragement. But I want people to see my work more deeply, contemplate on all the aspects of the stories that I tell in my paintings. Of course, fine arts are sometimes enjoyed for their beauty alone but mine is more targeted towards spreading awareness of the plight of Eritreans. I hope those who see and appreciate my work to think deeply on how they can take it to the next level and use it as a tool to advance our national cause.
I have a website that displays many of my works… all my life I have been carrying messages of the time for the sake of Eritrea. During the era of struggle I was focused on the situation of the time, war, terror, suffering, bravery and heroism… now that we are in a time when the suffering is of a different kind, I will focus of relevant topics, the tragedy of Lampedusa being the first major work since I left Eritrea. I will do that kind of work.
The painting named “Lampedusa” is one that I painted with extreme passion. I want it to be a dedicated memory for the victims of Lampedusa, a symbol of the tragedy, of what the victims went through. I want the support of Eritreans to find a permanent home for that painting, a place worthy of the painting and the subject, such as a museum or an important place where it would be kept permanently. I didn’t do this painting to be hidden in a private home; it is my wish that it is placed permanently in a public place. I wish some of your readers will help me find an appropriate place for my painting, “Lampedusa.”