Drawing on the raw physicality of everyday architecture, used as much for segregation and safety as for aesthetic purposes, Ethiopian-born and New York-raised Tariku Shiferaw utilizes his abstract art to engage with the repetition of the bar motif that has become encoded in our language of contemporary systems.
Freedom is valued and promoted on equal terms. When a society sees that it has the former, it will then receive plenty of the latter. Yet, there is an increasingly contradictory dialogue surrounding what that term actually means - with government’s more inclined to talk about freedom, whilst doing increasingly little to promote it.
In some of his works, the ‘art’ sits behind the bars, semi-obscured and, to an extent, held in captivity, unable to be viewed as we would regularly expect to see art. Others pieces feature bars built-in, with these paintings drawing our eyes to focus specifically on what is doing the hiding, not what is being hidden.
Like Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon, Shiferaw’s paintings are a lens through which we can look at society. His paintings have two perspectives - those looking from behind the bars at a world outside and those looking through the bars at what’s inside. All pieces can be considered from both states and each viewpoint beggars the questions - what is on the other side? And why?
In that sense, what side the audience can empathize as being on doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we are seeing things in terms of sides. Parts of our own consciousness will dictate what each piece means to us as one would imbue a Rorschach blot with significance. You might see a window out to the ocean, I might see it as a prison visitation.
Shiferaw’s abstract markings are built-up layers of meaning. That his horizontal works are ‘marks’ is an important point to the artist. He views them as a part of the same family tree as cave markings. There’s something defiant and primitive in that analogy. There’s also something quietly tragic. When we think of these primitive figures, we think of their early scrawlings as an attempt at language and communication. Back then, it seems, these were ideas unconfined.
Sadly, in Shiferaw's paintings, we see freedom as all but dissipated, with these markings representing something closer to scores on a surface, an attempt by the artist to emancipate that which is underneath. This isn’t freedom, but confinement. His ideas, as in the art itself, have been imprisoned in years of socioeconomic conditioning. More than painting, this is a cry for help from the collective psyche of modernity.
Deriving his ideas for the abstract from music and language, we can see a whole self-contained culture within Shiferaw’s works, his own visual language that’s as self-referential as it is referencing the wider contemporary world in which music and language - both primal in origins - have slowly become conditioned into homogeneity by.
In all of this abstraction is a deep sense of reflection - of what it means to have what we have in a world just like ours.
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