Theo Eshetu

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Theo Eshetu was born in London and grew up in Addis Ababa, Dakar, and Belgrade, before settling in Rome, where he received his first camera aged 10. Trained in London, he became a photographer of rock stars during the 1970s. Drawn into the worlds of David Bowie and Lindsay Kemp, Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, Eshetu collaborated with a number of artists before concentrating on the art of video. His focus on video’s expressive potential and his exploration of African cultures led to experimentation—ritualistic, raw, and unpolished—outside the established art world of the 1980s. He probed the dialectic between rational and instinctual in his series Till Death Us Do Part, inspired by the contradictions inherent in Leni Riefenstahl’s celebration of her African Nuba subjects. This pioneering video-wall installation appeared alongside works by Warhol, Nam June Paik, Joseph Beuys, and others at the International Art Show for the End of World Hunger.

Eshetu explores perception, culture, and notions of the sacred through electronic time-based media and optical devices and effects. He draws from anthropology, art history, scientific research, and religion—Catholic, African, Muslim, Buddhist—to explore clashes and harmonies of human subjectivity between world cultures in the global context. Though essentially conceptual, Eshetu’s work is always grounded in compelling aesthetic components, often achieved through fractal repetition, such as through kaleidoscopic mirroring, multi-screen projections, or mosaic-like

patterning of images. Several works concentrate on video’s formal components of time and light.

Throughout the 1990s he focused on forging a hybrid language to merge practices of video art and documentary filmmaking. Traveling Light (1992), his biographical portrait of Lindsay Kemp, received first prize at the Berlin Video Festival, and was frequently the only video accepted in prestigious film festivals. His Blood Is Not Fresh Water (1997), recipient of several awards, is at once a portrait of his Ethiopian grandfather, a travelogue/essay, and a journey of self-discovery. Mass Memory (1995) was presented at the Venice Film Festival as an homage to commemorate Federico Fellini’s passing.

Body and Soul (2004) and Africanized (2002) both presented at the Venice Film Festival among others, show a clear fascination for the interrelation of world cultures and for the metaphysical nature of video making. This is also evident in some of his earlier installations including Brave New World (2000), and Ways To A Void (2000), which reflect on Buddhist practices using themes of Light and Darkness, Time and Space, and Being and Nothingness. Eshetu’s month-long journey in the Himalayas is condensed into one hour of video, yet the viewer is asked to consider the journey’s duration as the length of a solar eclipse. Nothing happens. An Extraordinary Event (2006) explores the role of images in faith and in mass media, shot and edited during the year-long preparations which led to Pope John Paul II's funerals. 

Focusing in recent years primarily on video installation, works like Veiled Woman on a Beachfront (2011) and The Festival of Sacrifice (2102) focus on reading the role of Islamic art and the greater social political implications of a dialogue with the world of Islam as a basis for a contemporary art practice.

The Return of the Axum Obelisk (2009), a15-screen video installation first presented at BOZAR, Brussels, chronicles the repatriation of this monumental war trophy from Rome to Ethiopia and the religious ceremonies that surrounded its resurrection.

Among several international awards, Eshetu was recently Artist in Residence at Tarabya Cultural Academy, Turkey where he completed aspects of production for Altas Fractured, (2017) that was featured in  Documenta 14, Athens and Kassel. In 2012 he was Artist in Residence at the DAAD program in Berlin, where he exhibited The Return of the Axum Obelisk at DAADgalerie in 2014. His work has appeared at The New Museum, NY, in the New York African Film Festival, at DIA Foundation’s Electronic Arts Intermix, NY, in Snap Judgments at ICP (International Centre for Photography), NY, at BAM Cinemateque, NY, at Brooklyn Museum of Art, Baltimore Museum of Art, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, and Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in Africa Remix at The Hayward Gallery, London, at the Venice Film Festival, Roma Film Festival, Museum of Modern Art in Rome, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Nice, UNESCO headquarters in Paris, and the Martin Gropius Bau In Berlin, among others.

Theo Eshetu

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Theo Eshetu