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An artist’s saving grace

The main gallery space at the Santa Monica Museum of Art has been marked off by tape, like an archaeological dig where different findings have been indicated. In fact, the objects do look unearthed, anthropological.

Here, dozens of hand-carved sticks the size of walking canes are neatly laid out on a tarp; there, several hundred lumps of earth mixed with straw, crude figurines in the form of small apes, frogs and boxy television sets, are jumbled. Several framed works -- collages and stitchings on fabric -- are propped against the walls, which are being sponge-painted with an earthen wash.

The artist who has created these works is the subject of an unusual retrospective, “Elias Sime: Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart.” A quiet, burly man with a soft smile, Sime, 41, is from Ethiopia, where he is already well known. Three years ago he leapt onto the international scene when invited to participate in the New Crowned Hope Festival, organized by uber-impresario Peter Sellars as part of Vienna’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Sime’s work often integrates recycled objects, not to make an environmental or economic statement, he says, but because “they have a story. Like the old buttons I use in my work, I can feel the people who wore them.”

“Every object is telling stories, has a history,” says Sellars. “He takes you into this micro-universe of intense experience.”

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Last year Sellars convinced Elsa Longhauser, director of the Santa Monica museum, to do Sime’s first one-person show in this country. Longhauser praises the work as “all these things which hold a charge of life and are passed on from generation to generation. It’s very moving, very poignant.”

This afternoon, Sime and Meskerem Assegued, co-curator of the show along with Sellars, are in the gallery going over the first shipments -- and there is more, far more to come, they say. Assegued both explains the work and helps translate for Sime.

She picks up several of the sticks and reveals that each “handle” has a face carved into it, some comical, some fierce. “This is what the farmers use for digging, and they specifically look for these kinds of branches,” she says, holding one by the long end and dipping the shorter section downward. How will these be displayed? “I’m thinking of tying together several at a time, then hanging them up in a corner,” she says. Sime nods, trusting her to best present his work.

Sime is a graduate of the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts and Design. He majored in graphic design, but when he graduated in 1990, he felt the artist inside straining to get out. Since childhood, he had done sewing, embroidery and furniture repair, and he gravitated toward collage work. The early pieces were illustrative -- “Yedero Suk” (1997) depicts a movable general store that used to be common in Ethiopia. This, like much of his work, utilizes found or recycled material -- yarn, cardboard and cloth in this case.

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“I collect a lot of things; I collect everything,” Sime says. “Bottle caps, for instance, I have 20 big bags. I have also the same amount of old keys, buttons, horns, dolls, cans -- I have a lot of old rusted cans. I feel they have people’s touch on them.” Thus, the fabric in his work may be from worn clothing, the buttons from salvage. He often visits the main open-air market in Addis Ababa, his hometown, scouring for material. Even his signature on framed pieces is a recycle -- flattened metal bottle caps that he finds on the streets. “When people step on it, they put their mark on it,” he says.

Sime and Assegued met eight years ago, and he repeatedly asked her to visit his studio. When she finally went, she ended up staying for hours, as he showed her work upon work. The art, she thought, was astonishing enough, “but I was especially struck by his lack of ego.” She realized that he was someone she would want to work with, and she began putting him in exhibitions she was organizing. Sellars feels that that very modesty puts Sime “in a tradition of the sacred artist; he’s putting something larger forward.”

“He’s the most unpredictable artist,” says Assegued. “It’s contemporary art more than contemporary African art. Yes, it’s being done in Africa and addresses issues that concern us all, but he’s not in any movement. He doesn’t fit; that’s what makes his work unique.”

An anthropologist by training, Assegued is intrigued by indigenous pre-Christian culture and tradition, which is fast disappearing in Ethiopia, and she and Sime have traveled together to see traditional rites, artifacts and architecture.

“When we go out in the field, I document with writing and photographs,” she says. “When we come back, we don’t see each other for a month or so, and he does his own interpretations or feelings about what we’ve seen.” It was from one such trip at the end of 2002 that the first throne came about. In one village they had discovered a ritual to Bojje, the thunder deity. Weeks later, Sime showed her the fantastical throne he had built with a bovine skull and horns and cowrie shells on a carved wooden frame.

Real-life references

A week later, the exhibition is up, and this throne sits with a few others in the middle of the gallery. In April, in a procession yet to be determined, the thrones will be carried to Walt Disney Concert Hall for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s final concerts, featuring Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” and “Symphony of Psalms.” Around the thrones are dozens of goatskins filled with straw, arranged in groupings of two and three. (These skins were traditionally used as household containers.) The mud figurines are piled in a line along the back, and collages and stitched work have been arranged on the walls.

Although the recent stitched work looks more abstract, there are real-life references. In “Filega 1" (“filega” means “searching”), a hand emerges from a swirling ether created from pastel-colored yarn; the forefinger presses a circle that is on a panel with four points. Assegued suggests that since this was made after they had visited temples devoted to the thunder god, it might make reference to the altars they found there -- which often had four points. In “Filega 2,” one hand in the lower right corner seems to be reaching up. “It’s like reading,” Sime says of that one, “like you’re turning a page of a book.”

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Typically, Sime works from 6 a.m. till midnight. “Stitching takes a lot of time and patience. With patience you can do almost anything.” Then he adds, as an afterthought, “And that’s true in life as well.”

When asked whether he sketches or plans out his work, Sime reaches in his pocket and pulls out a stack of folded note paper. On them he has lightly sketched out various ideas -- squiggles and grids, with the occasional note. In his sewn work, he starts out with only a rudimentary pencil sketch on canvas. “If I sketch everything, it limits me. It doesn’t allow me to go freely. I let my mind lead me.”

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calendar@latimes.com


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