It’s time for our weekly coffee fix when I phone Petros Ghebrehiwot (35) one chilly Friday afternoon in Pietermaritzburg. Already driving over to his house, I am startled to hear he is not painting frantically to meet his exhibition deadline. “I’m in town buying a heater,” he says apologetically. I turn around and head in the direction of Game, where the sought after appliance is being bought. Coffee is not getting sacrificed for the country’s cold spell, I think to myself as I fetch the Eritrean artist and take him home.
Tucked behind a typical red-brick Scottsville house is Ghebrehiwot’s flat, which he shares with his girlfriend. While the heater is warming up the room, the coffee is prepared. The intensity of the brew is almost always followed by intense talk about the struggles of Eritrea, and how Eritreans drink their coffee.
The country, once a proud independent state, was incorporated into Ethiopia during the colonial era, causing a three-decade civil war from 1961 to 1991. After gaining independence, a border war erupted in 1998 until 2000, leaving the country’s relationship with Ethiopia in a precarious state. Ghebrehiwot lost his father during the war and he, like everyone in his country, was enlisted into the army.
Ghebrehiwot’s art is often a reflection of his country’s past, especially the continuing friction it has with Ethiopia. Often larger than life in both size and complexity, the work is magnificently emotional, and so authentic in its understanding of pain and suffering.
Having completed a Bachelor of Science degree at Asmara University in 1997 and working as a graphic designer and serving in the Eritrean army, Ghebrehiwot was sponsored by the country to further his studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2002. Switching over to art, he got his Masters in Fine Art in 2006. His masters’ exhibition, Secrecy of Shelters, received wide interest, resulting in a sponsored solo exhibition at ArtSPACE Durban in March 2006.
In the past year, Ghebrehiwot has been artist in residence at the Bag Factory studios in Johannesburg and the Greatmore studios in Cape Town, in which he exhibited work.
His current exhibition, Gathered Spirits, reflects the collective behaviour of people, exploring the reasons that bring individuals together and the power they hold together. “My inspiration for this subject comes from the group of people I lived and live with, especially my family and the crowd around me, as well as millions of people around the world who work together for a change, progress and a better life,” he says. “I always feel the powerful spirit that exists within a huge crowd and mainly focus on the invisible spiritual power of the crowd.”
The change of styles from being an artist in Eritrea to being an independent artist has been huge for Ghebrehiwot. “Back home, artists use bright colours, which has a lot of meaning,” he says. “Working with colour there is like using words -each one has its own meaning. Now I have reduced my need for that brightness.”
The style of painting in Eritrea is also affected by the state’s nationalist cause, he says. “I had to follow the political movement,” he says. “When I was deep into art I was in the army – all my relatives were in the army after 1998 – and all you hear is news about the war with Ethiopia. It made me deeply concerned about politics, and that’s what you reflect as an artist.
“The feeling is extremely powerful – whether you like it or not, you are influenced by the military,” he says. “When I came here I became more myself and moved away from being a nationalist to an individual.”
Painting in the small confines of his flat has been one of Ghebrehiwot’s biggest challenges, and he has had to paint his three-panel piece outdoors. “The colours differ with the changing time of the day,” he says. “The mornings are ideal, but when noon comes, the sun shines directly in my eyes.”
With sun in my eyes I depart, inebriated with coffee and rejuvenated for another short winter’s day.
•After his exhibition in Johannesburg, Ghebrehiwot’s work is to be part of a group exhibition in Hilton during the arts festival. Next year his work is off to the new ArtSPACE gallery in Berlin.
•Gathered Spirits by Petros Ghebrehiwot runs at the Afronova modern and contemporary art gallery in Johannesburg from August 3 until August 22. See www.afronova.com or call 083 726 5906 for more information.