Friday, 21 April 2017, 24:00 | midnight

#84: Theo Eshetu

In his video installations, Theo Eshetu brings together his particular grappling with the formal grammatics of moving images (i.e., those of television) with themes from anthropology, such as the meaning and representation of rituals, symbols, and myths. Born in 1958, as the son of a Dutch mother and Ethiopian father in London, he lived for a long time in Ethiopia until he moved to Rome in 1982—his roots form a significant point of his work in which he often refers to a complicated network of cultures.

Travelling Light, 1992 Beta SP, 57:00 min
In Travelling Light Theo Eshetu combines experimental video practice with documentary filmmaking technique to create a biographical and artistic portrait of legendary dancer and mime actor Lindsay Kemp (born 1938), a cult-figure renowned for his extravagant performance works including Flowers (1974), Salome (1975), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1985) and Onnagata (1991). 

Portraying Kemp through a dreamlike video montage, Eshetu subverts any clear distinctions between reality and fiction, truth and illusion. Electronically manipulated images mix with real life footage as Eshetu evokes Kemp’s imaginary and metamorphic universe. 

The video is composed of a wealth of material from multiple sources and took Eshetu almost a year to edit. It includes interviews with Kemp, Kemp’s mother and his closest long time collaborators; improvised performances by Kemp at home and in television studios; Kemp in the dressing room, at rehearsals, teaching; and selections from Kemp’s performances including the premiere of Onnagata. It also includes archival footage and contextual material like Kemp’s early dance recordings, which provide insight into the eclectic influences informing Kemp’s art and its cultural context. Travelling Light received the first prize at the 1993 Berlin Video Festival. 

Questa e’ Vita, 1988, 10:00 min
Both Resignation and Affirmation, Questa e’ Vita faces the inherently racist quality of television head-on, transforming it into a celebratory anthem of black pride. As a part of biographic expression, the artist seeks an understanding of a video poetic through ritual, make-up, gestures, postures and dances, clothes, nudity and the blury pixels of the video signal. This work aims to both destroy and celebrate the possibilities of an Art for Television: Questa e’ Vita explores new forms of video-making and the artist’s search for a new video language by going back to his roots. Following the form of American Jazz musicians experimenting with new sound by going back to their African roots and the early cut-up method of hip Hop musicians, Questa e’ Vita is a Pop Video to Art Blakey’s drum solo in “Orgy in Rhythm“.

Theo Eshetu (b. 1958 in London, UK) lives and works in Berlin and Rome. He has worked in media art since 1982, challenging conventional genres and moving across formats including experimental video, installation art, documentary and photography. Interested in the expressive potential of video and its distinctiveness from other art forms, Eshetu explores how electronic media shapes identity and perception. 

Theo Eshetu was born in London and grew up in Addis Ababa, Dakar and Belgrade. He received his artistic training in London, obtaining a degree in Communication Design from the North East London Polytechnic in 1981. Moving to Italy shortly afterwards, he lived and worked in Rome until 2012, when he was awarded an Artist in Residence on the DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst) program in Berlin. 

Eshetu’s dual African and European background has informed much of his work, which juxtaposes images, symbols and rituals. Drawing on themes and imagery from anthropology, art history, scientific research and religious iconography, Eshetu’s evocative montages challenge established and prejudicial beliefs about civilisation and savagery, reason and passion, black and white. 

Since the 1990s Eshetu has been testing the limits of narrative storytelling and portraiture through works such as Travelling Light (1992) and Blood Is Not Fresh Water (1997). Eshetu’s work also reveals and enacts his spiritual concerns and questions. It shows a clear fascination for the interrelation of world cultures and for the metaphysical nature of video making. 

Eshetu has exhibited internationally. His pioneering video-wall installation Till Death Us Do Part appeared alongside works by Andy Warhol, Nam June Paik, Joseph Beuys and others at the International Art Show for the End of World Hunger held at Minnesota Museum of Art in 1987. Recent solo shows include Brave New World at the Museum of African Art, The Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC (2010) and the Return of the Axum Obelisk at the DAADgalerie in Berlin (2014) and now Atlas Fractured at documenta 14 in Athens.