Elias Sime’s E-Waste Abstractions for Venice Are Tightly Linked With His Community Projects in Ethiopia 

When Elias Sime was in art school, his teachers threw his work in the trash. It was the late 1980s, the final years of Ethiopian communism, and art students were expected to produce socialist realism. But Sime was more interested in materials—in trash, as it were.

Today, Sime is now known worldwide for gargantuan abstractions—a new series debuts today at Spazio Tana in Venice—comprising intricately arranged e-waste that he buys, often by the truckload, in Addis Ababa’s Mercato market—the largest open-air market in Africa. When I visited in the market in March, I saw mountains of keyboards and motherboards, and spools of coated wires sorted by color.

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The sheer volume of the e-waste in Sime’s work can be a shock to Western viewers, who are used to sending off trash never to be seen again. For this reason, his work is often described as a kind of commentary on recycling. But Sime was making these for 25 years before he started showing in the Western world. For him, the work is really about our addiction to technology: he wants to make you think about all the ways connectivity has changed, to question our addiction to constant upgrades.

A giant pile of e-waste.
Elias Sime’s studio.

Resourceful reclamation is not novel for Sime, but part of his everyday ethos. Sime’s approach, of tending to his surroundings, pervades everything he does. In Addis Ababa, I visited Zoma—Sime’s compound replete with a museum, a school, a restaurant, and a farm. He funds it all with sales from his artworks. The school is critical to Sime’s mission: workers at Zoma repeatedly mentioned the corruption involved in the national curriculum, and the necessity of interventions.

The seed for the complex was planted in 2002, when Sime and his collaborator Meskerem Assegued, an anthropologist and curator, bought a dilapidated house, thinking they’d convert it into a studio. Sime began adding to the structure with mud and straw, a vernacular technique, and from there, his project evolved organically. Now, it features a half-dozen mud buildings, each sculptured with their own intricate patterns. Assegued was put off by the rampant introduction of toxic building materials into Ethiopia, when vernacular architectural forms had proven perfectly durable. Driving around the city, you’ll find countless dwellings made of mud and corrugated steel, behind which uninhabited skeletons of luxury condo buildings ominously loom. Addis Ababa is developing fast—and in ways that leave locals skeptical. A Zoma worker named Teddy put it like this: “Where there is corruption, there is construction.”

Intricately patterned mud buildings with wood-framed windows.
Building exteriors at Zoma in Addis Ababa.

And so, Sime and Asseguedare charting alternatives. Zoma employs130 people, often training skilled workers whom other people hire right away. And they educate 160 students: the school too is in high demand, and specializes in educating autistic children. When I visited, a few were playing in the grass and tinkering with computers; Zoma does home visits to train and support their families, too.

My visit to Zoma came just days after the actress Lupita Nyong’o had stopped by. And she’s far from the only high-profile person to have taken note: the current prime minister has been tapping the duo to build on such sites as a gorgeous cave called Sof Omar, where they have just started to undertake preservation efforts, make the cave accessible, and carve artworks into the rock; or Mount Entoto, a National Park they have outfitted with a waterfall, an amphitheater, a greenhouse, a workout area, and a culinary school led by James Beard award-winner Chef Yohanis. Situated at an altitude of two miles and covered in Eucalyptus trees, the community site is terraced with ramps that make it wheelchair accessible.

At Entoto, muchof the construction is cantilevered so that it floats rather than paves over the plants and animals who lived there first. As I walked on the mosaic-lined path Sime was in the process of building, I watched him pick up a small piece of trash someone had left behind. Assegued’s design features holes cut in concrete to let light shine down and trees grow through. “I hate cutting trees. I hate killing anything,” Assegued told me, as we gazed down at a Juniper tree growing through holes in not one but two stories. She shared the same sentiment when we visited an elderly, disabled milk cow in her care, who is bonded closely with one of her daughters, also living at Zoma.

Assegued is an anthropologist by training; she and Sime craft designs together, then consult an architect and then a structural engineer. The totalizing approach prompted curator Hans Ulrich Obrist to liken Sime’s practice to the Gesamkunstwerk, German for “total work of art,” and the duo’s practice begs comparison to land art and to social practice, too. But their project reminds me most of the Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, whose built works, made of reclaimed materials, share an ethos with everything he does: from his paintings (bright colors, organic shapes, fantastical landscapes), to his diet (mostly nettle salads). In ecology as in society, everything is interconnected; every decision has a ripple effect.

You can see this ecosystemic thinking—which really often looks like common sense care—in their intervention in Unity Park. All visitors to this major attraction, first built by Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II in the 19th century, now enter through their garden of native plants—rosemary, succulents, wild olive trees. Whereas in other artist gardens, plants are enlisted as symbols or metonyms—more often than not, for histories of colonialism their global migration betrays—here, they aren’t so much “conceptual” as the right thing to do. Native plants are always more friendly to local ecosystems. The turtle-shaped ice cream hut Sime intricately crafted of used metal spoons is friendly, too. As we shared a meal in one of the houses the duo designed together—enjoying tiramisu, a remnant of Italian colonialism, enhanced by fresh Ethiopian coffee beans—Assegued described how the buildings were like an ecosystem, too, pointing up to an intricately woven conical ceiling that both funnels heat and keeps out rain.

A wooden inlaid interior inside a house made of mud.
An interior at Zoma in Addis Ababa.

Sime’s newest works, debuting this week in Venice, at Spazio Tana, concern mineral extraction, with intricately woven, colored wires forming crystalline shapes, reminding viewers from whence certain materials derive—a nod to the Earth, and to the inhumane labor practices that incessant updates rely on. In his works, many nearing ten feet wide, you’re forced to contend with the sheer volume of materials once mined at great cost to the earth and to workers, only to soon become waste. Yet with their sheer magnitude and unmistakable beauty, they devastate delicately. The works are made of electronics, but they are hardly futuristic or shiny. They evoke, instead, what we lose as we “develop.”

And the craftsmanship is exquisite—so well made that you start to wonder where the machinic ends and the handmade begins. Instead of mixing paints, he twirls and braids together different colors of coated wires. You’ll likely find yourself taking it all in from afar, then coming up close to see how it’s made, then repeat. In one of the new works, green swaths of wire punctuated with nails echo metallic components on green motherboards. These moments of irregularity remind warmly of humanity. Showing me the works at Zoma, Sime said proudly yet humbly, “What else can do this but love?”

Sime’s big abstractions are made up of small panels, allowing him to add continually; similarly, his process of building with mud and straw allows him to keep adding to buildings as needs change. And change they do:there’s not much flat space at Zoma—he keeps saying he wants to build that dream studio, but time and again, he winds up building for his community instead. And so, he’s often laying out his arrangements in classrooms when the kids have gone home, sometimes working until he falls asleep there.

E-waste is one of countless things being tended to and given a second chance at Zoma—alongside animals, gardens, children, and community. Here, burners in the culinary school are fueled by biogas from cow manure while their slur fertilizes the plants, basically eradicating the notion of “waste.” Here, an incredibly sweet local kid in need found a home with Sime andAssegued,who adopted him as their own. Here, in many ways, modernity is the thing that feels like trash—something that alienated us from nature, and in its ways, from real community, too.

Source: artnews.com

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