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Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Commissions Artist Elias Sime for New Public Garden at Historically Off-Limits National Palace

Elias Sime’s garden under construction.

COURTESY JAMES COHAN GALLERY

Elias Sime, an Ethiopian artist well known at home and ascendant internationally for works involving intricately woven tangles of reclaimed electrical wires and other materials that come to look like paintings from afar, is building a large public garden for the Menelik Palace in Addis Ababa that has served as a nexus of power for leaders in the past. The project came to fruition after Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed visited Zoma, an ambitious complex of buildings and gardens in the city devoted to exhibitions of contemporary art and indigenous-architectural education as imagined by Sime and anthropologist Meskerem Assegued.

As James Cohan, whose New York–based gallery represents Sime, recalled of the prime minister, “Once he saw it, literally the next day he called Elias and Meskerem up and said, ‘You need to come to the grounds of the royal palace, which I’m going to open to the public for the first time since 1976. It will become our national pride, and you need to build a garden for us.’”

Detail of Elias Sime’s Tightrope: Noiseless 14, 2019.

COURTESY JAMES COHAN GALLERY

That visit some three months ago led to work that has continued around the clock on a 30,000-square-foot garden expected to be completed in six months. “They’re carving pieces of stone with wavelike rhythmic forms,” Cohan said, “and he’s carving stone for the walls.” More than 300 workers are involved, and “the prime minister visits on a daily basis and has brought numerous visiting international diplomats and dignitaries to see progress,” Cohan added.

In a written statement, Sime—who is working on the project with his partner in Zoma—told ARTnews, “Anyone can be commissioned to build, but being trusted by the Prime Minster, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, with love to build our dream in one of the most prestigious places is special. What Meskerem Assegued and I are building is meant to give love to anyone as much as we loved building it.”

Workers at the Grand National Palace.

COURTESY JAMES COHAN GALLERY

Later this month, Sime will be honored as one of two winners (along with Njideka Akunyili Crosby) of African Art Awards from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. In an announcement of the awardees to be feted in the capital on October 25, Gus Casley-Hayford, the museum’s director, said, “Both artists focus on the personal and societal impact of connection as they work with materials evocative of contemporary renewal, reuse, and hybridity.”

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