Betrayal And Predicament Of An Eritrean Artist

“During the struggle era [Pre-Independence] 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.” […]

“…In 1997, [six-years Post-Independence], President Isaias ordered me to do the work for the palace […] For five months I [was] suspended on ropes, on scaffolding 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.”  […]

“In my case, I live for my artistic message. My behavior 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.” […]

The beauty to watching a film rests in how it would impact the viewer after the viewing experience is over. Likewise, reading a book or an essay can leave a lasting impact on a reader. Reading an interview transcript that was conducted by SGJ of Eritrean artist, Michael Adonai unequivocally leaves powerfully resonating impression to one’s inner core. The trigger for my last piece stemmed from the comments made by AT, Amanuel, and Tes. This time it was reading “Presenting Master Painter Michael Adonai” which left me wanting for more, a great deal to contemplate for. Two books that I have read long ago kept occupying my memory bank, namely, Antigone (by Sophocles) & A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (by James Joyce). In the case of the latter, save the former for another day, it was the association I kept making with the main protagonist in that Michael Adonai’s circumstance seems to aptly fit with what the character goes through in the book; Stephen Dedalus, who was the alter ego of Joyce (the author), the hedonistic aspects of the character notwithstanding, the reader is allowed into the inner plight of the protagonist as he transforms himself above and beyond cultural and religious constraints of the society from which he hails. At long last Stephen ostensibly decides to leave his country to a place where he can forgo his cultural and religious upbringing in favor of his art. Similarly, Michael Adonai seems to have been in the same predicament as Stephen, because his ideas, concepts, and thoughts for which he needs an outlet his country of birth would not offer such a venue or a feat and exile was the only viable answer. But don’t they say that art imitates life or is it vice versa or perhaps the two enmesh together to create the lived experience, I leave that contemplation for readers.

Any which way one chooses to look at it, artistic stance that was entrapped by a system gone awry or is it a system in perpetual haywire? There does not seem to be any conceivable rectification from such wayward other than an all-out eradicating and uprooting it altogether. Meanwhile, lives are being claimed senselessly, exiled unnecessarily, which is the tired and tried platitude of human condition as sometimes happens to be the case where condition does beat ambition, but it never fails the human spirit ultimately prevails – betri Haqqis tQettnmber aitsbbern.

It appears an artist has come full circle from pre independence era, in a somewhat less constrained ambience in which there seemed no contradictions between his art and the things he wanted to express through it. The young Michael probably joined ghedli in principle and thus on his own volition as it can palpably be surmised from the interview; suffice it, therefore, to mention as implied evidence in the stipulated explication in how his painting was part and parcel during the struggle for independence. Post-independence, however, where the separation of the artist from his art has become the domain of the nation-state as Michael glaringly makes it clear in the epigraph above which, as it appears the man at the helm was operating in the pre-independence mindset, in which, were tera tegadalai to be ordered to jump and the only ready answer was how high. Michael did literally jump to the ceiling, dangling there to offer his labor of love – painting a palace. The pre-independence project did become PROJECT for those in power in the post-independent Eritrea. As slowly and certainly, the only way to disentangle oneself from such indentured servitude was much as what Stephen (Joyce) did and what Michael ended up doing, forced to choose exile than choke the gift of expression that the universe has endowed him with.

But all is not lost, for the veil of darkness was suddenly lifted because those who perished in Lampedussa’s high seas were not forgotten and will never be forgotten; their stories are now captured in a frame for eternity through that young mother who gave birth to a child in the seabed as both lay dying refusing to leave one another and the navel string made certain they stayed intact. So, the painter and his paint, the dancer and his dance, the singer and his song, and the writer and his ink, the country is being emptied and drained from its vital human capital, but the narrative of anguish continues to be recorded in myriad forms and that is a wonderful respite as it is allowing us all to breathe a sigh of relief.

This is the kind of story that the brute regime refuses to acknowledge, but artists are refusing to let such horror and tragic stories perish into thin air as yet another arsenal in opposition’s cannon forging forth to show his powerful fodder, who refuses to accept the incessant deprivation from a regime that has anything resembling decency, altogether lost its moral compass. We are finally seeing the not so farfetched, not far flung of a claim that a painter leaving the country for which he struggled all his adult life, a very sad scene, indeed. In another story and another author relates his father’s poignant advice that went something like this: “better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness?” Michael has rekindled hope, rekindling that flicker of light with his mighty painter’s brush he seems to have made a wise choice akin to the words of wisdom from a father to a son, instead of complaining of the perpetual darkness, one flicker of light is worth leaving one’s country as the tragedy from the seabed emerges to the surface screaming through the painter’s art. Unlike a writer who must show his skills through the written word, a painter, in a stroke of genius, “wordlessly and spatiotemporally” narrates a plight of a people in one canvas and that is why Michael Adonai’s work must stay afloat to carry the message of hope from outside Eritrea for which he and thousands more like him have sacrificed their youth for while the dying light continues to dim from inside Eritrea’s proper, from outside it is brightening by the day.

Armed with rich life experience; armed with artistic talents and gravitas; armed with imagination; armed with lethal tools, tools that a dictator abhors, freedom to imagine. In Michaels own words, “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” (, July 1st, 2014). Armed with such determination, “ain’t nothing gonna” stop such a man. Cherish it and paint to your heart’s content; may the spirits of creativity never leave you, for Eritrea and its people need you now more than ever as the struggle seems to be calling on you; once again, and you seem to be cognizant of this fact when you state the following: “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.”

Of course, subversive acts sometimes require that the subversive person leaves home to continue the subjunctive acts and humanity is replete of examples in which artists feel compelled to leave their country of origin because of the The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera). “Why I choose exile” (Richard Wright). Go tell It on the Mountain (James Baldwin), just to name but a few. So, Mr. Adonai welcome to the world of freedom and the pursuit of happiness, please keep telling your stories through the power and the gift the universe has endowed you with: Painting. From the epigraphs above and the quote that this piece ends with below, you seem to be keenly and deeply aware that within the confines of our history, there also lies the ultimate responsibility that freedom of expression and freedom of perception do go hand-in-hand and that I sense is what you want to contribute for the society from which you hail and that is highly commendable act of humanity – keep on shining the light as you put it eloquently below where the fabric of our society has been disfigured unrecognizably, but not for long:

“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.”

Ref. link: Presenting master painter Michael Adonai


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