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Be it physical or spiritual, we all are present. One might roam endlessly in their subconscious state while the body is present in the physical world. The title of this art exhibition 'Though Presence' entails the presence and the being, or passing through a certain time and period. It looks at passing in a sense where one contemplates, dreams, stresses, laughs, rages depresses, and boasts through a certain time and period.  

Artist Dereje Shiferaw at the gallery - Photo Credit: Kalkidan Zelalem

“Art is being your true authentic self.”
Artist Dereje Shiferaw Worku

This exceptional artist is often misunderstood for his ‘outlandish’ works of art. His artworks embody giant African bodies with distinctive African faces, signifying dignity and respect. As someone who is always in his train of thoughts while taking walks through the forest, and who always expresses how he feels, this series of artwork is perfectly suitable in its creation.

Driven and inspired by nature, Dereje manifests what he feels inside into physical form through his art. Having taken both art and life lessons from his older brother- who happens to also be an artist, Dereje was well seasoned with principles of art and discipline at a very young age. It is because of this that he didn’t feel the need to attend university to study art. Dereje is someone who has a free spirit and this stay-at-home dad of two takes inspiration from nature, either the winds blowing through the leaves or the cry of his toddler, he is always encouraged to create. For Dereje, 1+1=3, and while this equation is unconventional, it is the principle law for him. He says "if a single seed is planted, it grows into millions”.

His works are different from the usual “Ethiopian Art Aesthetic”. They start from a deeply rooted concept and then Dereje goes with his feeling. Some of the artworks I observed appeared scratched and some appeared very soft - Dereje explained to me that the scratches are the reflection of his feelings at that very moment he was making the artwork, either he was angry or frustrated. Observing him, I can tell Dereje is a laid-back, jovial person who is deeply grateful for the support of his wonderful family.

The curator of the exhibition, Dr. Desta M. described Dereje as exceptional. He said that “while many artists are refining and defining, Dereje is emphasizing and questioning. His signature continental melanated men and women project lush and illustrious lips with huge contorted hands accentuated with simple yet stylized noses and eyes that speak volumes. They are familiar yet funky and fresh. Dereje is unbridled by any academic pedagogy or formula, hence he freely goes where most formally taught artists dare not to venture, making him exceptional.”

The Gallery - Photo Credit: Kalkidan Zelalem

Visiting the exhibition was a great experience for me. It was held in the Alliance Ethio-Francaise compound. This compound is lined with trees, providing an environment that would put one’s mind in a serene mood. All 45 works were completely enclosed by the silent spacious gallery. In the center of the wall, the works of art appear as though they are floating; they hang with tiny transparent threads from either side. Previous works were included in the art displayed, but most are recent. Warm colors such as red, green, yellow, blue add beauty to the plain white walls.

“There is dignity in consequences.”
James S.A. Corey

The wind by Dereje Shiferaw - Photo Credit: Kalkidan Zelalem

The first impression of this woman may be poignant, but the tenacity and dignity expressed in her face cannot go unnoticed. The woman has lost something but she embodies an aura of dignity that she amassed from the consequences that were brought up by the same thing she lost.

“ You can not always control what goes on the outside, but you can always control what goes on inside. ”
Wayne Dyer

The wind by Dereje Shiferaw - Photo Credit: Kalkidan Zelalem

This woman on the other hand is wearing white but the expression on her face makes her seem lost and burdened. She is absorbed in whatever is brewing in her mind and oblivious to what is going on around her. I feel as though Dereje portrayed most of the individuals in our present day, who look cheerful from the outside but broken and scattered on the inside.

The wind by Dereje Shiferaw - Photo Credit: Kalkidan Zelalem

This artwork is one of my favorites. The flamboyant deep bright red color catches the eye and the bold yet defeated gaze of the man may trigger one's curiosity as to why he might be feeling that way.

The wind by Dereje Shiferaw - Photo Credit: Kalkidan Zelalem

Dereje, very clearly, creates what he feels. His emotions can be seen in the artworks as some might appear soft and some might appear far from that. For instance, this subject’s cheeks are scraped. The expressiveness of the hands of this giant and the Mohawk along with the earpiece say something about this subject's freedom and self-expression.

Due to a lack of quality paints and materials, Dereje has to create his own oil pastel technique. That is why the color of these subjects’ skin is out of the ordinary. In a sense they are cool. Dereje has experimented a lot and his works have now evolved into what they are now; giant eloquently put together, bold African subjects.

Photo Credit: Kalkidan Zelalem

This exhibition showed how people are through their presence; some are zoned out, some are seen to argue with their thoughts, some are seen with dignity and tenacity, and others are depicted with multiple emotions. Dereje is an underrated artist, his deeply thought-out concepts and raw feelings adorn works of art that are seldom celebrated. His artworks are like his friends and he is elated when the audience has a sort of dialogue with his friends. This series of rudimentary yet sophisticated artworks are embellished with bright warm colors and piercing expressions. These gentle giants- as I observed them- will make you think and heighten your curiosity. As Dereje is already outside of the box, creates what he feels all while changing the narrative about art in Ethiopia, the sky is the limit for this artist and colorist extraordinaire. I can't wait to see what's more to come from his brushes.

Follow the artist and his work on Facebook: Dereje Shiferaw

Kalkidan Zelalem

Kalkidan Zelalem  is studying biotechnology, but her passion lies in writing, photography, telling people’s stories, art and empowering people. She enjoys documentaries, whether they’re crime, investigative, or biopics. Kalkidan feels like an old soul and indulges herself in collecting vintage materials- books in particular- which she wholeheartedly owes to her late grandfather. Her ultimate goal is to shed light on Ethiopia’s richness and to inspire young women to stand up for themselves and never give up.