Review: ‘Elias Sime: Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart’ at Santa Monica Museum of Art

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To step into the fantastically jam-packed installation now at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is to step into another world: a nuanced universe suffused with compassion, sensuality and wisdom, a place so far removed from the cold calculations and multi-tasking distractions of life in Los Angeles that it seems you have to be a specialist (or very privileged) to go there.

It’s all too easy to see the 60-plus sculptures, 40-odd paintings, seven thrones and five wall reliefs by Ethiopian artist Elias Simé as an anthropologist would: ingenious artifacts from a fully formed culture fundamentally different from our own and probably part of a way of life being squeezed out by global consumerism.

But “Elias Simé: Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart” is nothing of the sort.

Although Simé’s first survey exhibition in the United States is made up of works crafted from such seemingly primitive and potentially ritualistic materials as goatskins (many with the hooves still attached), the horns of exotic animals, carved totems, mythical emblems and thousands of cowrie shells, they are, nonetheless, works of art: terrifically sophisticated objects and images that are powerful because they move viewers in the here and now.


Your interest is the only prerequisite to face-to-face engagement with them. And if your interest is sufficiently intense, that’s also all it takes to be on intimate terms with Simé’s unusually generous art, which is part and parcel of our increasingly interconnected and madly hybridized world.

Guest curators Meskerem Assegued and Peter Sellars have had all the interior walls of the museum removed and the four load-bearing walls covered with a thin coat of what appears to be mud. The textured swirls of earthy tan transform the ordinarily whitewashed space into a warm and inviting room that is not quite domestically scaled but certainly not cavernous, more like a public square where friends gather.

The immediate effect is stunning. Large, small and medium-sized collages cover the walls. All have the presence of paintings, some abstract, some figurative, some combining the two approaches. But there is precious little paint in Simé’s two-dimensional works.

Instead, he uses objects and materials that he buys at the sprawling market in his hometown of Cherqos, a rough-and-tumble town on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where he graduated from the university with a degree in graphic design.

In some works, Simé has stitched battered scraps of fabric, plastic bags and bits of newspaper to ragged swatches of burlap to make pictures of crowds, tent cities and trading kiosks. These are among the earliest works in the show. Made between 1990 and 1997, they pay homage to Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.

In others, Simé has fastened a wild variety of buttons to tautly stretched canvases or has stitched strings of variously colored yarn to them, sometimes affixing bottle caps as highlights. Some of these pieces are serene, nearly monochromatic. Others are explosive, like cosmic eruptions that startle the eye and stir deep feelings. These button works were made from 2003 to 2008, as were the vast majority of the pieces displayed, all of which show an artist who has come into his own.

Arranged around the floor — alone, in pairs, trios and a few clusters of four — are 60 tanned and treated goatskins that Simé has stuffed with straw so that they seem to be inflated, like lumpy, misshapen air mattresses. He has decorated them with stitched yarn and baubles, creating abstract patterns, mysterious glyphs and idiosyncratic diagrams. On the belly of one, a comical devil dances.

There’s something ridiculous about Simé’s headless creatures. They would be obscene if they weren’t so goofy, such a ripe combination of the Michelin Man and a deformed satyr, or the Pillsbury Dough Boy and the medieval symbol for cuckoldry. Collectively titled “What Is Love,” they embody a deep appreciation of human folly.

In the center of the room stand six similarly perverse thrones. Each is a combo of simply carved wood, animal horns and leather, with beads, shells, yarn, brass and the skull of some beast thrown in for good measure.

None looks all that comfortable. The tips of the horns on some come too close for comfort, suggesting that being a ruler is being on the hot seat.

Simé’s thrones will be featured in Sellars’ production of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” and “Symphony of Psalms,” Esa-Pekka Salonen’s final concerts with the L.A. Phil on April 16 through 19.

In a small room off the main space, a watchable documentary by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris takes visitors to Simé’s home in Ethiopia. Made from much of the same stuff as his art, it’s a live-in sculpture. The gracious film sketches just enough background information and doesn’t get in the way of the art. You have to see that for yourself.

-- David Pagel

Santa Monica Museum of Art
, Bergamot Station G1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; ends April 18. $5 suggested donation. (310) 586-6488,

Top: Simé walks among some of his sculptures at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times. Bottom: Simé‘s ‘Jemot’ (2003). Credit: Santa Monica Museum of Art