Eritrean artist finds a home in Nairobi studio


Self portrait of Erimas Ekube. Image/Margaretta wa Gacheru 

By Margaretta wa Gacheru

Posted  Thursday, February 28  2013

Ermias Ekube has only been in Kenya since April 2012, but already the Addis-born Eritrean artist has acclimatised himself to the Nairobi art scene rather well.

Having just held his first one-man exhibition entitled Breath of Consciousness at Alliance Francaise, Ekube was also actively involved in the Kwani! Literary Festival held late last year in which writers from all over African including the African Diaspora showed up in Nairobi to share their wisdom, books and generally transform Nairobi into the literary hub of East Africa—at least for a brief moment in time!

Evidence of his involvement in the Kwani Festival was apparent to all who saw the Alliance Francaise monthly calendar or passed by the French Cultural Centre anytime in February since his poster displayed one of the most powerful portraits of his whole exhibition.

It was of the renowned Egyptian feminist writer, medical doctor and human rights activist Nawal el Sadawi who was last seen in Nairobi in 1985 during the United Nations International Women’s Decade Conference.

Unfortunately, Ekube never got Nawal to sit for him during her brief stay in Nairobi, leave alone give her the painting Kwani had especially asked him to paint for her.

But using a striking photograph of the writer, he managed to create a powerful image of her which, for me, was more effective in capturing the woman’s still-vibrant spirit than the photograph ever did.

Ebuke, who counts himself as a poet as well as a painter/engraver, managed to catch the poetic essence of Nawal, an essence that compelled her to leave her medical practice in order to write and live a career of protest against tyranny and military dictators.

Nawal’s penetrating gaze is suggestive of the reason why Ebuke’s art has been in such demand in Scandinavia and Europe ever since he left Addis Ababa in 1997 and moved back to his ancestoral land of Eritrea.

Working within the constraints that artists like Vincent Van Gogh faced before him, that of finding live models prepared to sit for him as he painted their visage for hours, Ekube occasionally works with live models.

But frankly, some of the most captivating paintings in his ‘Breath of Consciousness’ show have been inspired by images he grabbed off the internet. His bold-faced series of Boy 1 and Boy 2 testify to that fact.

Fortunately, now that he has taken settled down at Kuona Trust, Ekube has started work on a special series, having every artist working at Kuona sit for him as he paints their portrait.

Only one of those paintings was in the recent exhibition, that of Meshak – looking fit and very strong, in fact, looking more like a body builder than a gifted sculptor.

Meshak’s portrait has already sent art lovers back to Hurlingham to see the other half a dozen Kuona artists that Ekube has already painted.

Having studied painting and drawing at the Addis Academy of Art, Ekube is proficient in several genres, not just portraiture. In his AF show, his abstract series entitled Improvisation 1-5 revealed riots of bold splashy acrylic colours applied to canvas with broad, obtuse strokes.

But it is his series of linocut engravings which he brought with him from Asmara that reveal the quality of the artist’s draftsmanship and well-refined skill.


Etching out images of old age as well as youthful feminine beauty of lovely peasant women in their prime, Ekube only gives one hint of his spiritual affinity for the orthodox Ethiopian church. It’s visible in his etching of a wide open Scripture held by an unnamed saint.

The other painting in his Breath of Consciousness exhibition that was a crowd-stopper at Alliance Francaise was the artist’s self-portrait, which had a vague resemblance to one painted by Van Gogh—the shape of his head, the slant of his pose, the quality of the portrait—only that the painting is a spitting image of the artist himself.