Ermias Kifleyesus

Writing the score of the world

“Political attitudes or fashionable ideas about art cannot help me when making a

painting nor when forming a representation thereof… the only thing that engages

me is the mystery of the world.” René Magritte, 1957

There is a compulsion in the work of Ermias Kifleyesus (1974, addis ababa), as

there was in that of Magritte, to draw an image of the world into the sphere of his

work. This is not a matter of depiction or representation, but about using

fragments from the world to get to grips with or even precipitate the mystery of

the reality around us. These two artists’ worlds are of course very different.

In today’s modern society, the world in which Ermias Kifleyesus moves, there are

issues like multiculturalism, migration, globalisation, over-consumption and the

over-population of large cities. They implicitly form the background to which his

work relates and the elements the artist appropriates and makes his own.

after his education as a figurative painter in Ethiopia, ermias Kifleyesus came to

Europe at 1998 and established himself in Brussels. His original

training was supplemented with a more conceptual approach to art. In his early

work he combined a feeling for colour and composition with the use of everyday

objects. I recall a video I saw during a visit to his studio at the Higher Institute for

Fine arts in Ghent in which herbs, cups and foodstuffs were shaken up, in a

simultaneously rhythmical and violent manner, into an almost formless, colourful

composition. The whole was like an abstract painting, but with added utensils.

Kifleyesus’ art starts from analysis. He wants to offer us new avenues of thought

by bringing new elements together. The herbs and foodstuffs in this video piece

all contain various connotations, including cultural ones, but are standardised

and incorporated into a more aesthetically pleasing whole.

Ermias Kifleyesus’ art is not intended to create something from nothing, from a

tabula rasa. rather it engages existing systems, the marks and creations left

behind by others. He wants to bring these together, rework, partly erase, select

and add to them. In that sense, there is a collective factor present in each piece;

he uses other people’s contributions. In recent work he has used damaged

canvases left behind by second-hand traders at flea markets in Amsterdam.

Discarded, anonymous compositions, often faded and covered with layers of dirt,

dragged around for some time but eventually becoming so damaged they are

left behind with the rubbish. using a chemical adhesive mixture and sticking on

thin cotton rags, Kifleyesus meticulously peels away the dirt, varnish and layers of

paint from these found compositions. In this process, in which chance and

imperfections play their parts, one image becomes many images, like a filmic

sequence of variations giving an insight into the artwork’s creation and

degradation. Kifleyesus both makes visible and destroys. In his archaeological

working method the process takes precedence over the actual image of what is

or becomes visible.

Kifleyesus could be seen as a sort of ethnographer and archaeologist of our

current globalist consumer society. He himself talks of a kind of subservience to

the multitude of signs, images and traces people leave behind in every nook and

cranny. This artist’s palette consists of anonymous and unwitting contributions by

others. In 2006, the artist shifted his working domain to international telephone

shops in large cities where you can make cheap international calls. These shops

are predominantly used by city dwellers with migrant backgrounds, with family

and friends in distant countries. The insulated booths are a point of

communication and contact; they are a place where everyone becomes

accessible through modern technology. The booths contain stories from many

countries. When telephoning, when our attention isn’t on reading or writing and

the pen is given free rein, we make hasty doodles and notes, patterns are filled in

and we allow our pen to draw round shapes. It seems as if our hand is

disconnected from our brain and is given carte blanche to draw spontaneously.

It is these chaotic scribbles by many anonymous callers that fascinate the artist.

In consultation with the shop operators he collects what callers have unwittingly

left behind. He replaces the pens and paper, later introduces canvas and fabric as

supports, and subtly steers what and where people doodle. Kifleyesus initially

replaces the full notebooks for empty ones a week in a self-imposed

protocol. He later experiments with existing images, canvases and

advertisements that he has allowed the callers to deface. These isolated cells, in

which customers have personal conversations, are Kifleyesus’ laboratory, where

he researches people’s drawing behaviour. The colours of the pens change,

various colours are offered. Forms pre-drawn by the artist steer the scribbling

behaviour; pieces of plastic cover certain parts and trigger specific scribbles. Over

the years the artist has been looking into how certain markings attract other

markings. How you can work with various colours, how you can suggest patterns

and can work with texture and other elements. The artist maintains contact with

a number of shops in various countries and regularly visits them to replace the

materials. He sees the callers’ contributions as an ‘open source’ from which to

draw. The artist also collects the wooden shelves on which the telephones stand

and that contain traces of sweat and dirt, even the soiled phone cables are a

starting point for a new sculptural piece. This results in collective works by

unsuspecting participants.

Moving on from this base material, Kifleyesus recently opted for wooden window

shutters. as symbols of both screening off and a particular perspective, the

horizontal strips also refer to the text or strips of a comic book story.

The horizontal rails have tape stuck to them, after which the scribbles are

transferred to other supports. Fragmentary, narrative or reflective, the result is a

composition combining abstraction and figuration. after a few years the artist

has now accumulated an extremely large collection of forms, colours and

patterns with which he can set to work as a painter (with brush and colour

palette). using tape and adhesive, and rubbing, pushing and wiping materials,

he creates a composition on canvases and wall surfaces that read as an

orchestrated amalgamation of the many small scribbles. He showcased a large

wall piece in the summer of 2014 on the monumental wall of the central space on

the ground floor of the MuHKa. These compositions function on various levels.

From a distance they look like a detailed abstract colour field, almost a Jackson

Pollock ‘drip painting’, but one discovers patterns, figuration, repetition and

overlaps when close up. These pieces create an ordered chaos, forming a

reflection of today’s world on both micro and macro levels. The unwitting

contributions of numerous outsiders make the pieces a unique testament,

conducted by the hand of the artist, which is subservient but crucial in its

masterly mixing and dosing items from the vast array.

large street posters found in vandalised bus shelters are folded into sections and

taped up. every few days Kifleyesus re-folds the posters and offers the callers a

new fragment to doodle on. Hundreds of unsuspecting people make small

additions to the cartography of compositions. The drawers react with one

another, continuing filling in or erasing what has been left behind. Famous faces

from the fashion and film world are depicted on these advertising posters. even if

they are largely scribbled on, they maintain their iconic value and are still

instantly recognisable. More explicitly, these street posters introduce the

interesting tension between public and private into these pieces. after the callers’

additions, Kifleyesus unfolds the posters and reintroduces them into the public

domain of the museum or exhibition, but now filled with markings like scars

distorting the large multinationals’ seductive advertising. The whole display

shares common ground with the layers of torn posters by French Pop art artists

such as Jacques Mahé de la Villeglé, who recycled posters taken from walls,

tearing them to make poetic compositions or to insinuate a new thought.

The whole is a sort of ‘guerrilla action’ employing images, signs and letters.

This combination of private and public was also the driving force for various

conceptual artists, who in the sixties and seventies left the confines of their

studios and placed their work in dialogue with the public domain. They

systematically looked into the occupation of the public space by man through

pre-conceived activities. ‘Following Piece’ (1969) by the american artist Vito

acconci consists of a pre-established protocol in which, for a month, the artist

followed randomly chosen strangers on the streets of new york as far as the point

when they entered their private residencies. acconci said: "I am almost not an 'I'

anymore; I put myself at the service of this scheme." There is a kind of tension

between two people, without any direct discourse about art or life or any

sublimation of the everyday. The work by ermias Kifleyesus is also intended to

engage in a continual exchange with contributions by others, a participation that

can be traced back to its foundation. It is neither about the artist’s personality nor

that of the drawer, but precisely the zone in between. The sheet of music that

arises from the composition of scribbles is simultaneously personal and

anonymous and escapes any form of logic.

The artist also finds universally recognisable marks on cheap plastic bags and

cardboard boxes. logos and handwritten inscriptions on boxes are like prefab

drawings and scribbles with a totally different intention. The brand names or

symbols of the multinationals do stand for something, namely a product, but in a

certain way are just as anonymous and erasable. The artist is interested in how

printed bags and boxes are reused. In a large city like Brussels, the homeless use

cardboard boxes to make themselves a night-time shelter in the public domain.

Kifleyesus sticks tape on the hand-written inscriptions on the boxes and then

removes the tape, thus removing the writing to then collect it together on

cardboard boxes in his installations. as if he wanted to safeguard the public space

– and in particular the protective spaces of those that live on the edge of society

– from labels. In his own work, he creates an antithesis to the critical saturation of

written labels and advertising.

a recent series of monumental canvasses brings all these various inscriptions

from the world together in an exceptional way. Imprints of anonymous paintings,

inscriptions on promotional bags and numerous scribbles and doodles are

meticulously applied on and over each other using rubbing, adhesive and glue

mediums. High and low cultures stand side-by-side and are brought together by

the use of an all-over painting technique (where the canvas is evenly covered

with images) in which the imprints are given a crackled and worn effect. each

piece seems to have been scrupulously put together and consists of a

foreground, middle ground and background – like historic landscapes. The

images bring together divergent times, perspectives and viewpoints. each piece

contains various openings, viewpoints and ways in which they can be

approached. Familiarity alternates with abstraction and ambiguity. They are

aesthetically compelling images that say something about the world, about

value, commercialism and communication. The artist makes us participants in his

quest to understand the things around us by dismantling and re-composing

them. Much like an anthropologist, he mingles in society and then steps back.

His working domain is not limited to the large Western cities where he regularly

exhibits. In his recent work he also involved his native country of Ethiopia, which

is in full development. The rapid pace with which buildings are being erected in

the capital city results in many labourers working under difficult conditions.

Kifleyesus takes new overalls to these cities and asks the labourers to exchange

them with their own. In his hands, these unclean overalls, drenched in sweat,

become a modern portrait of an african city on the rise. after undoing the seams

they are fixed onto canvases as an ode to physical work. In ermias Kifleyesus’

work, these traces of hardworking labourers from another continent are in sharp

contrast to the many meaningless scribbles and logos which frequently appear in

other pieces. yet they are both witness to one and the same interest in creation,

globalisation and making human creations visible where they usually remain

unseen. The artist leaves space for other people’s marks, yet at the same time is

able to construct a completely unique visual form of language which gets us

thinking on various levels.

Eva Wittocx


Hans Theys

Geweren van kaneel

Over het werk van Ermias Kifleyesus

Ik ontmoette Ermias Kifleyesus (1974) voor het eerst aan het HISK. Hij ontving mij in een klein atelier, dat volgestouwd leek met afval: verfrommelde plastic zeilen, sloopmateriaal en ongekookte spaghetti. Hij zei niets. Ik keek rustig rond en zag op een horizontale lat, die op veertig centimeter hoogte aan de muur was bevestigd, enkele pasta-kokertjes staan, als een vrijwel onzichtbare sculptuur of maquette. Dan herkende ik in een spiegel een prachtig berglandschap, dat niet meer was dan de reflectie van een ogenschijnlijk achteloos in een hoek gepropt plastic zeil dat oplichtte onder het schijnsel van een zogezegd omgevallen schemerlamp. Uit beide werken sprak een indrukwekkende vormbeheersing, die niet verziekt was door behaagzucht. Je voelde dat deze man heeft gewoond op een plek waar je overal afval aantreft en dat zijn esthetische krachttoeren een politieke ondertoon hebben. Tot slot zag ik twee videoregistraties van performances waarbij Kifleyesus rond zeult en schudt met een ondersteboven gekeerde en op die manier bak geworden tafel, waarop in één film tal van voorwerpen zoals stokbrood en gebroken borden of een koffiekopje heen en weer schuiven, rollen en tuimelen en in de een andere film mooie stapeltjes specerijen langzaam vermengd raken, als een palet dat vanzelf vermengd raakt tot een schilderij.

Bij een volgende bezoek trof ik knappe collages aan, een nieuw landschap, dat deze keer op een monitor te zien was (live gefilmd: een prachtig verlicht woestijnlandschap met een eenzame, dode boom, waarachter rook opkringelde, geënsceneerd op de vensterbank en gebruik makend van de schouw van de achterliggende kazerne) en een schilderijtje dat een man voorstelde wiens neus de gedaante had aangenomen van een mannelijk geslacht. Het schilderijtje was heel kundig geschilderd. Ik herkende de gevoeligheid voor licht die ook in de ensceneringen te zien was.

Kifleyesus woont in Brussel. Daar maakte hij een mooie reeks schokkerige filmpjes waarin je hem ziet aanbellen bij tientallen huurders in dezelfde ‘opbrengstwoningen’ en hem via de ‘parlofoon’ hoort vragen of ze Pablo Picasso, James Ensor of René Magritte kennen. “Non, je ne le connais pas. Il a habité ici?”

Deze zomer herhaalde Kifleyesus de performance met de ondersteboven gekeerde tafel en de specerijen op het De Coninckplein in Antwerrpen. Op dat plein tref je altijd traag drinkende, haveloze mensen en andere schijnbaar misplaatste figuren aan. Kifleyesus vertelt dat hij werd aangevallen door enkele onder hen, maar dat er zich uit dezelfde groep meteen mensen aanboden om hem te beschermen.

Kifleyesus: “Eén persoon ging mij te lijf, vijf mannen probeerden mij te beschermen, iemand begon mijn gezicht te strelen en een achtste persoon bood zich aan als bemiddelaar. Elke cultuur heeft eigen regels, die op zo’n moment zichtbaar worden. Ik probeer als kunstenaar een evenwicht te vinden tussen het individuele en het sociale. Daarom maak ik onder meer werk door geprepareerd papier aan te brengen in de cabines van telefoonwinkels. Ik hou van de gedachteloze krabbels, doedels en schetsen die mensen maken terwijl ze aan het telefoneren zijn. Tegelijk breng ik op het papier bijvoorbeeld afbeeldingen aan van antieke meubels of uitgeknipte fragmenten van stadsplattegronden. Soms teken ik erover heen of voeg ik er iets aan toe. Soms vergroot ik een doedel en kleef ik die op de deur van de cabine.”

De tentoonstelling heette ‘A Map in between two Countries’.

Kifleyesus: “Ja, zo noem ik de telefoonwinkels en de tekeningen die ik daar laat maken door de klanten. Naar Antwerpen komen was voor mij zoiets als naar een ander land reizen. Om de onwennigheid en angst te breken, vroeg ik de mensen die ik ontmoette op het De Coninckplein of ik de ruimte tussen hun handen mocht fotograferen. Die foto’s heb ik geprojecteerd, gemengd met tekeningen. Er was ook een schilderij te zien op basis van een foto van het De Conincplein, die ik had gemaakt vanop het dak van de bibliotheek. Op dat schilderij komen ook roddels voor die k hoorde op het plein. Voor mij is er een verband tussen het statuut van roddel, afval en de mensen die rondhangen op het De Conickplein. Ze worden alledrie verwaarloosd.”

We bevinden ons nu in de tentoonstellingsruimte van De Markten. De vloer is bezaaid met kruiden en ongekookte pasta. Als je rondwandelt ontploffen de spirelli’s en de rigatoni’s onder je voeten. Het ruikt heel sterk naar anijs en koffie. De ruimte is halfduister. Rechts wordt de film over de tafelperformance met het stokbrood en het koffiekopje geprojecteerd op de witgeschilderde, bakstenen muur. Links staat een monitor op de grond, waarop we de video met het vermengen van de specerijen zien. Links achteraan treffen we een prachtig schilderij aan, leunend tegen de muur en verlicht door een op zijn zij gelegde schemerlamp. Het schilderij stelt de voorgevel van de St. Kathelijnekerk voor die zich vlak bij De Markten bevindt. De basistonen zijn lichte aardekleuren, wondermooi. In uitgespaarde vlakken flitsen gespoten fluokleuren op. Over het schilderij staan zinnetjes geschreven, waaronder deze uitspraak van Kifleyesus’ moeder: “A priest who doesn’t have dinner, doesn’t pray from his heart during mass”. Kifleyesus gaat te werk als een schilder die zo weinig mogelijk schildert  en zoveel mogelijk nadenkt over zijn plaats in de wereld en de kunstwereld, zoals Angel Vergara en Vaast Colson. Zijn werk behoudt echter die bijzondere kwaliteit van schilderijen of sculpturen die door hun makers telkens verder in het lelijke of het onbehoorlijke worden gedreven, zoals je kan zien bij Walter Swennen, Damien De Lepeleire, Peter Buggenhout of Tamara Van San, maar tegelijk getuigen van de grootste vormbeheersing. Het schilderij dat we nu kunnen zien in De Markten vertoont onderdaan bijvoorbeeld een rafelige, schijnbaar slordig afgesneden boord, maar ook een brede, witte, onbeschilderde strook die vormgeeft aan een esthetiserende afstand.

Kifleyesus: “Een schilderij moet glanzend, fris en warm zijn, zoals een penis. Het moet de mensen aantrekken als een magneet. De frisse elementen, zoals de fluokleuren, komen uit het straatbeeld. Voor mij is dit schilderij als de Klaagmuur, waar mensen geschreven berichtjes in stoppen. Op het schilderij tref je berichtjes of roddels aan die ik in de buurt heb opgevangen, alsof ik ze in de muren van de kerk heb gestopt. Als ik op het De Coninckplein word aangevallen en er rond mij tumult ontstaat, neem ik dat waar als vergankelijke culturele landschapjes. In mijn schilderij probeer ik zo’n landschapje op te roepen door er uitspraken in te verwerken. Ik hou van het feit dat een schilderij en privé-aangelegenheid is, die sociaal contact mogelijk maakt. Alleen ik weet hoe het schilderij gemaakt is, maar het is ook gemaakt voor de mensen die het zullen zien. Je weet nooit vooraf hoe een schilderij zal ontstaan. Het is met schilderijen als met de liefde: als ze verschijnen, moet je ze vastpakken, als ze niet verschijnen, kan je er niet naar op zoek gaan. Anders word je een soort van keramist. Het schudden met die tafels is zoiets als goud zoeken of ziftend graan scheiden van de aarde, op zoek naar een mooi complex beeld… Onlangs heb ik een schilderijtje gekocht van een marktkramer. Het enige wat erop staat is “1€”. Sinsdien zie ik dit teken overal. Het is aantrekkelijk als een schilderij. Je wil altijd wel weten wat er voor 1€ te koop is. En al die aankondigingen zijn uniek, net als goede schilderijen.”

Montagne de Miel, 8 oktober 2009

Found in Translation, chapter F:

Ermias Kifleyesus in Ficarra

Curator : Emmanuel Lambion, Bn PROJECTS

Beyond their initial appearance of formal casualness and lightness, Ermias Kifleyesus’s works embody extremely precise intentions and reflections. His art consistently addresses, both literally and figuratively, what might be called an aesthetics of transfer or migration of codes and conventions. Invited to participate in Found in Translation, Chapter H in Brussels in January 2010, Kifleyesus exhibited two trestle tables on which were displayed, under glass, the results of a protocol he had followed for a number of years in Brussels: twice a week he went to neighborhood “phone boutiques” where local immigrants could make inexpensive international calls, and there he left notepads in the phone booths. The next time he dropped by he would pick up the pads, now covered with drawings, notes and other semi-unconscious comments that phone users had made during their conversations. Kifleyesus thereby acquired a cartographic stock of anonymous, additive, participatory drawings.

Here we are exhibiting a new development of that protocol, which is still being implemented by Kifleyesus even though he decided to change the medium three years ago, when he replaced the notepads by cotton tablecloths found in flea markets. Sometimes, he traces underlying drawings on these cloths, which serve as a background for the scribbles added by phone callers. But the callers cannot directly perceive the picture in so far as it extends over several different cloths, only becoming apparent once all the cloths are aligned together. In some other instances, as in the present Greetings from Charleroi to Rome (whose title acts as a tribute to the seminal economic and cultural contribution of Italian emigration to Belgium and to the Charleroi region in particular), Kifleyesus’s intervention comes after, on the collected random graphic material collected, transferred or applied to the canvas. Usually, the “framing” drawings depict architectural perspectives, such as here Charleroi main station. The constant back-and-forth between public and private spheres, individual contributions and collective composition by X-number of hands, the artist’s designated design and the phone callers’ erratic additions, can sometimes acquire an additional layer of sedimentation through the process externally printing / applying the image on a wall in the public sphere.

This dialectic of randomly exposed intimacy is also although, in very different ways at the core of the two other works we brought to Sicily.

One is just a T-shirt, randomly stained with grease marks, given to the artist by a car mechanic who claims to be inspired by and fond of Cubist painting, whereas in the other case it is iconic transfer of the a found painting from Marché aux Puces which Kifleyesus has applied on a bed linen.


Ermias Kifleyesus has chosen a practice where time and work explores diverse

relationships that employs a formal editing, combining elements and enigmatic

associations of a profound and playful kind. Using a calculated cropping and compression

of time, Kifleyesus collects hundreds of individual drawings/doodles, old reproductions of

paintings and objects through negotiations with international phone shops, retail shops, the

public at flea markets, etc.... using this technique to construct meaning and attest to the

possibilities of transforming what is seen as banal into visually powerful objects imbued

with meaning and relationships to the artist surroundings and academic.....

The exhibition Ermias Kifleyesus: MATERIALS investigates the artists interest in these

situations associated with rigorous and process-oriented practices in conceptual art,

Works that are redefining what a moment can be. Art as an examination of the public, that

is from and created by the public. Part of the belief of art are those artists who break

boundaries as to the definition of “art". Artists have always sought new approaches and

methods to express ideas current to their time and place, the Impressionists rejection of

the Academy, DADAIST, Conceptualists, and Graffiti among others. Kifleyesus who has a

formal background in figurative drawing and painting chooses to use geographical

presence, ideas and situations as the aesthetic value by which to define his work. Relying

(at times) more on his understanding of art history then a personal studio practice because

his studios are in the public sphere and left to chance.

Three separate works in the exhibition are related by the process of collecting individual

markings/doodles through installing items in international phone booths. For the transfer

"Fortress" (2013) Kifleyesus used found cloths that were placed in booths over the course

of three to six months with a marker and/or pen although most of the time participants

used their own drawing tools. He then goes back to collect the material and studies the

markings, repeating some of the images (for symmetry) then selecting an architectural

image to draw over them selected either through personal interaction or found

photographs to create memories or myths about romanticism . Both "Reflection

Connection" (2013) and "A Film of Dust on the Piano" (2013) are done by the same

method, however in the case of these works the artist purposely manipulates the material

so that the act of collecting images is practically ephemeral. The images on both works are

indentations and the images are only seen either through the use of light to indicate where

a person has interacted (with the few spaces left for actual drawing in "Reflection

Connection") or by bring the indentations forward through using black paint and light.

The piece "Stories from Vermeer" (2013) and the video "Upside Down" (2009)

demonstrate the artist use of collective bargaining as a process for finished work. For

"Stories of Vermeer" the artist negotiated with clerks from a local HEMA in Brussels to

collect note pads that are used to test pencils, pens and markers. He then places a piece

of broken Delft Blue Porcelain on top of the pages as a relation to the Vermeer's birth

place (Delft, Netherlands). The work is a play on historical reconsiderations of periods and

academic curiosities to think about art itself and the language surrounding it, and the

history of where it comes from. In "Upside Down" we witness the artist creating an

intervention at a location in the City of Antwerp. Kifleyesus used an upside down table that

was filled with whatever was found and/or available at the location. A camera is attached to

the table and people in the area are asked and allowed to move, shake and add items

onto the table. A visual smorgasbord of objects, sounds and attitudes the video reveals

interpretations of what contemporary art practice represents to the public ending with

Kifleyesus having a "physical" debate with an individual about weather the project/video is

art or not.

The final works in the exhibition a reconfiguration of his ongoing installation "Oil and Water

Don't Mix" and "Untitled Landscape" (2012) revisit the artist use of of transfer. With this

method Kifleyesus uses purchased or discarded oil canvases from flea markets, removing

the frames and transferring the images onto clean canvas as the artist states "to discover

the process of the painting" that being the initial work that is needed to create a final

painting. The remnants of those painting are then turned into conceptual landscapes for

with various installation possibilities. The outcome(s) is an abstraction/deconstruction of

the discarded paintings to add new meaning to the medium. Ironically and a curatorial

purpose both works in the exhibition relate to the idea of landscape painting through their

impressions other then an actual visual presence while still paying respect to the theory of


Ermias Kifleyesus works spring from a place somewhere between knowledge and

uncertainty resulting in images, reproductions and installations that are at once familiar yet

unusual in contemporary practice. Process driven work based on the passage of time and

anonymous interactions with participants, orchestrated tensions between the public and

environment, forceful acts of contemporary art discourse that lead to objects to assist us

in contemplating contemporary process. The works in MATERIALS sets out to give a

demonstration of these methods.

O. Rynell Cash