Mask and Shadow: Ethiopian Painter Daniel Taye

By Wendy Laura Belcher. Published in the Ethiopian Review (January 1999)


“You're not going to like my work,” painter Daniel Taye warned gallery owner Konjit Seyoum when they met in 1994.


Recently graduated from Addis Abeba's Fine Arts School, the young Ethiopian painter inspired more puzzled expressions than praise. His paintings didn't fit any of the usual categories of Ethiopian fine art: traditional religious art, the social realism popular under the previous Marxist government, or the abstract impressionism currently the rage. Viewers didn't seem to know what to think.


“But I fell in love with them right away,” Konjit told me. “In fact, I'm a terrible representative for him, I want so many of his paintings myself!”


The owner of the new Asni Gallery is not the only one. Last May, the Italian Cultural Institute gave Daniel a one-man exhibit, showcasing dozens of his paintings at European prices, and an exhibit in Rome is in the works.


Daniel regularly exhibits at Asni Gallery, the decidedly different art space that Konjit runs in a renovated nineteenth-century mansion near the French Embassy in Addis Abeba. Commissions for portraits are frequent and his earnings enough for Daniel to build a brick studio. At the tender age of thirty, Daniel Taye is well on his way to becoming an artistic sensation.


I first met Daniel in July 1997. When his friend, the author Asfaw Damte, learned that I was in town to interview authors and artists, he insisted that I visit Daniel's home and studio. We took a taxi to the outskirts of Addis Abeba and turned into a muddy lane lined with Eucalyptus trees. Asfaw then led me into an adobe compound encircled by a stick fence and a yard filled with bricks, mortar, and stacked roof tiles, materials for a new studio.


Daniel and his mother came out to greet us and the word “intense” came to my mind. Slim, with a sparse goatee and penetrating gaze, Daniel had a tremendous physical stillness about him, something that I soon found stood in direct contrast to his oil paintings. 


We were shown into his roofless studio, lit green from the tarp strung overhead, which sagged with that morning's rain. Four paintings leaned against sawhorses, quite different from anything I had seen. Human figures dominated. They leapt from the frame, vigorous, bold.


Asfaw became animated upon seeing one of the paintings, new to him. In it, a corpulent priest sat with his back to his thin parishioners, his huge hands folded and passive. “This is really good,” he exclaimed to Daniel, who smiled and was silent.


Daniel's brothers brought a couple more paintings in, and then a couple more. Soon no wall space was left, so we went outside. The ground was muddy, but paintings had materialized outside as well. They were propped against the house, in the windows, on top of the tiles, beside the doorways, along a shed. As his brothers worked, it became apparent that Daniel didn't have just dozens and dozens of oil paintings stashed away, but hundreds.


Many of them were portraits of eerie, hunched figures. Others included empty buildings or uninhabited streets. Certain objects appeared over and over: beds, bulls, shadows, padlocks. The portrait titles were stark: “The Beggar,” “The Cripple,” “The Idiot,” “The Leper.”

I wanted to ask Daniel, “What is this? What does this mean?” but couldn't. Asfaw explained that Daniel had concentrated on his art at the expense of his English. And, unfortunately, my Amharic was vestigial.


Eventually we sat down to talk, Asfaw acting as translator. It didn't go well. Asfaw had warned me in advance that Daniel didn't like to talk about himself, so I steered clear of the personal. Daniel told me only that he had painted single-mindedly ever since he won a national drawing competition while in the fifth grade. His painting schedule was random. For a month he would take long walks through the city, three or four hours, especially through the poorer neighborhoods of Addis Abeba. Then, in one day, he would paint one, two, three paintings. “I am not organized, disciplined,” he said.


My other questions didn't prompt much from Daniel. He politely but firmly deflected my interpretations of his work as “political.” He claimed that he had no particular platform or line “like a politician,” he just lived his life and painted what he experienced. Encounters in his daily life, contradictory things he observed, triggered ideas or feelings. These lead him to take up his brush. When I pushed, suggesting his paintings seemed like comments on society, he said that he never intended this. He just felt sadness for all the “emptiness” and so painted. He added that he painted what pained him, not with the intention of reforming society, but just to express its impact on him. His denials made me feel self-conscious, my questions inadequate to his work.


A British couple arrived then and managed to find the one painting that wasn't somber. A morning cafe scene in cheerful greens and yellows. Daniel made no attempt to steer their choice. When Asfaw walked them out, Daniel and I stood without a language in the midst of his entire productive output. I couldn't help but think how many artists would be glad for such a moment with their nemesis, the critic! Without the barrier of language, the writer and the artist can remain focused on the visual, not its interpretation.


So I tried to speak to him in his language, opening a copy of a literary and arts journal I worked with called Suitcase. I showed him a drawing by Iranian artist Hossein Khosrowjerdi, from his series on censorship. In it, a man covers another's mouth with his right hand. In his raised left palm is an open mouth. Riveted, Daniel examined the image until Asfaw returned. Then he looked at me and nodded.


Back in Los Angeles, I told Elias Wondimu, the managing editor of this magazine, that the interview hadn't gone well, that I had misread Daniel's work as social commentary. I pointed to Daniel's painting of a naked man reeling beneath a woman's portrait. “I thought it was something about the famine or the position of intellectuals, but Asfaw corrected me,” I explained. “He said it was a romance, the man is sick at heart because the woman has rejected him.”


Elias examined the painting and started to smile. “So you thought it was samena werq?” he asked, knowing my interest in wax and gold as an interpretive framework for Ethiopian arts. He pointed to the woman, “I think so to. This must be Ethiopia, and this despair at a barren table, that's nothing so simple as a rejected lover.” Then, with a laugh, “I've never seen more political work.”


Thus encouraged, I returned to Ethiopia in May of this year, partly to visit Daniel again. I was determined to get a better sense of his work, which struck me as powerful and complex. I could see that he painted from daily life, but I couldn't believe that his paintings didn't have a larger meaning. Unfortunately, Asfaw was not available to translate. But I had studied up on my Amharic and Daniel, it turned out, knew more English than he had let on. In his now completed studio, surrounded by morning light and bright oils, we managed to communicate, me saying mostly mendinaw and him answering with a few words and many hand gestures.

His vision became clearer to me once we started talking about one painting in particular: “The Bus Station,” in which a young woman and old man are slumped on a bench. Daniel explained, “They are waiting for the bus. The bus is a symbol.”

“Of what?” I asked.

“The bus is Christ. Or bread or an angel or a good man.”

“So you're work is political,” I commented. (The critic never tires of trying to impose their interpretation on the artist!)

“No, it's not political,” he responded patiently. “The man, he is an old spirit, he has grown old waiting. The woman, she grew tired waiting, that is why she is sleeping on his shoulder.”

“But this seems like samena werq to me,” I said.

And he nodded, as if I had finally understood. “Yes, all my work is samena werq.”

We went then to see Konjit, who besides being a gallery owner works as a translator. Over injera and wot, I asked her why Daniel resisted the idea of being labeled political.

“To me, he's almost more of a writer than a painter,” she responded. “His work is like a book. But he doesn't like being labeled. For instance, he likes that one person may think 'The Bus Station' is 'political,' that another may think it is 'me and my husband.' He likes for the meaning to be multiple. To him, they are waiting for anybody who will carry them to where they want to go. The only truth is, they can't go without the bus, without redemption, whatever that is.”


Daniel talks about his paintings. 

The Empty Chair. (White figures in front of padlocked doors.) 

DT: The key, the padlock, is something that prevents entry. It stops you from going forward. It symbolizes also the absence of free and honest communication. People have secrets. They keep things hidden and the verbal communication that goes on is fake, it's not genuine. Also, the padlock symbolizes that many things are locked. You can't go this way, you can't enter here, this gate is closed, so you have to use gate one, because three gates of that particular compound are closed, literally. 


The empty towns, empty buildings, reflect what is in most of us, that we are empty. We have no sort of content. This uselessness, emptiness, that I notice in life are at the root of my paintings of big structures, big cities, that are really nothing. 


The chair is there for the purpose of resting, for sitting on, but the chair has no seat. The old man has seen that it is a chair which is not a chair, but the old woman won't listen to him, she has to go and check it out herself, and discover that it is no chair. 


The padlock is the same kind of thing. We want to open it, but the other side is just as empty as this side, there is nothing at the other end. So, it is part of this theme of emptiness. But people have to see for themselves, experience it for themselves, they won't learn, they won't listen to others, they keep on hoping that maybe, if I go, I can sit on it, that chair. Maybe the other fellow was wrong, maybe he didn't see it properly, so you go, but you discover he was right. So, you keep on hoping until the end, even when you see that the thing is hopeless. This old woman, she is so old, so feeble, so weak, even if she was able to reach the chair, to satisfy herself, to ascertain that the chair cannot be used for sitting on, she would have exhausted all her strength getting there and discovering that it is empty. Now she cannot go back, because she has exhausted her strength in getting there and discovering that it was empty, as it was said.

The Poet Who Was Assassinated by Laughter (Portrait of Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin.) 


DT: One evening, my friends and I attended a rehearsal for a poetry reading. Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin had allotted parts to various people and at one point they were reciting a poem about a woman who lives on the streets, a very tragic poem. My friend and I were practically in tears when I realized that the actors, who had parts to play, didn't feel anything! They were laughing, joking, talking amongst themselves. I saw that they were like pipes through which water passes. They let the water pass through but they didn't drink it themselves. What they were reciting didn't affect them, it was not a part of them. They recited without understanding, without feeling, without being engrossed, so they were just pipes through which things passed. Here is a tragic reality and they were laughing! They were killing the poet, so I called it “The Misunderstood Poet” or “The Poet Who is Killed by Laughter.” Originally I intended to paint a plain portrait of Tsegaye, as I did of the historian Tekle Adek, and of some musicians and so on, but when I got to Tsegaye, I painted it this way.


The Last Period. (A painting of a chalkboard with writing on it and a boy in yellow trousers.)

DT: The writing on the black board says the following: “Oh, I am crying now, I am bored and sick and tired of everything, our moral teacher is absent, the science teacher is shouting, but we are not listening to him, neither now nor later do we want to listen to him. I am confused, I don't know what to write. I am bored. We are all bored. In fact, at the moment, I am even bored with the word 'bored' itself. While still in tears of laughter at what I have written above, I smile. It is comic. Everything is a lie.” The crazy writer, the student, is me.


The Person Concealed. (A naked man at a bus station with portrait of bull's head.) 

DT: He is a human being. A man, a friend, a father, maybe me [he smiles]. It's like an x-ray of a man, it reveals he's really a bull.


The Roses. (Two beautiful women with iron nails protruding from the painting.) 

DT: Women, if they like me, if they think I'm charming, they come and see me, they see this painting and they get afraid. 


WB: For good reason! 


DT: But look. [He points to The Corrupter. (A naked woman in a flowered meadow being gazed at by a bull in a suit, nearby is a boutique with nudes in the window.)] This bull, he chews up and spits out this girl, this virgin. At first, before him, she is innocent, but his contact corrupts her.


At first, she sees a human being, only later does she see the bull. Like a wolf in sheep's clothing. She is corrupted, like a virus. By corrupted, I mean, she becomes prickly, like a rose, not a lover. She becomes like a snake [here he shaped his hand and forearm into a snake about to strike].


She sees everything, she understands everything, she is ready to strike. She is no longer open, she is always ready to attack, she is a soldier. Then a man comes, and everything is snakes and bulls. Soldiers and bulls. She won't believe a man even if Jesus were to come and talk to her. She has heard all the beautiful words, why should she listen to any man? She won't listen. But he still loves her.


WB: This is a very sad story. 


DT: Yes.


Wendy Laura Belcher is a Contributing Editor of ER. She resides in Los Angeles.