Eritrean Profile: August 21, 2004
Reflections of Yodit’s Magic Paintbrush
Department of Adult and Media Education, Ministry of Education, Government of Eritrea. Eritrea. Sub-Saharan Africa.
It was my first encounter with her in our office barely three months after my joining the Department. She was drawing a few sketches of a few Eritrean women carrying well ornated pots and jars over their heads, walking down the narrow, tenuous and serpentine ruddy road that passed up and down between the rugged hills. For a moment my eyes got glued to the image, which invoked the spiritual conscience at the bottom of my heart at once. “She is Yodit Mehari” said one of my colleagues, with whom she is supposed to collaborate here. “She is an artist”, he continued, “She would do the necessary art work for the department”. She turned her face towards me and said, “Hullo”. She is quite svelte, beautiful and lissom as much as her paintings. I was quite surprised and shocked at her austere looks and modest appearance. “I began to know about her” I said to myself and left her room.
Two weeks later, Yodit sent a nice portrait reflecting the life styles of the Eritrean women comprising all the nine groups in Eritrea. It was an excellent painting, very impressive and attractive too. I looked at it with great awe and intrigue. I know that there are as many as nine ethnic groups among Eritreans namely Tigignya, Tigray, Bilan, Saho, Kunma, Afra, Bizo, etc. But I had to know yet the differences among the life styles of these divergent cultural groups. I was in fact taking the help of one of our colleagues---tall and young Simon I and short and stout Simon II whom I refer very often like this jovially. But this portrait has bared all that I should know at once. It brought the popular adage, a painting or a photo speaks one thousand words live to my memory in a flash of a second.
A few of her paintings had indeed provoked me a lot to brood over and had driven me down the memory lane. During my childhood days, I used to read Chandamama (the Moon), a children’s magazine which was published in 18 languages in India for over 25 years. It published not only excellent stories of immense moral value and entertainment, but also carried a number of beautiful running pictures reflecting the story. Those pictures were drawn by Chitra and Sankar two great artists of the times, who of course are no more now. But they had left an indelible impression not only on me during my childhood but also many of my contemporaries of that time. There were excellent painters during my childhood days and later too in India. Artists like---Vaddadi Paapayya, Bali and Bapu are some household names for their paintings and the greeting cards both in India and outside for a long time. Almost all of them had begun their early career of painting with Children magazines. Though all of them had the magic touch of Ravi Varma and characteristic stamp of Picasso in the early part of their painting career, later they developed their own unique styles of painting which decorated every shop, hotel and house irrespective of the economic status. Another striking feature of their paintings is their characteristic association with the Indian spirituality. There are certain symbolic strokes of the brush, which instantaneously invoke the innate spiritual feelings of an individual among these paintings. It is exactly this that one can find in the lissome strokes of Yodit’s magic brush. From Ravi Varma to Picasso through Chitra, Sankar, Papaiah, Bali, Bapu and MF Hussein—all went through this unique transformation from impressionism, pointillism and symbolism to modern art like cubism. At the end of it many including Picasso himself returned to the classical forms of art and painting.
As I landed in Eritrea in October last the Eritrean painting and its characteristic features have been constantly pulling me towards a closer look at it and it is Yodit who fulfilled this for me. As I walked down the main road of Asmara, the Internet cafes and the Tea and Snacks Restaurants that flaunted these captivating paintings had invariably appealed to my Indian spiritual sense. Especially the paintings decorating the walls at Aferki Internet Café, Hotel Nyala, Cathedral Café, Damera Bar and Restaurant and at many other places in Asmara immensely attracted me towards their artistic splendor and grandeur of Eritreans.
Yodit’s paintings like many others’ paintings are full of symbolism and impressionism. Though most of them are today drawn from the Department’s point of view and its angle of objectives, they invariably consist of the magic touch of the painting. They do not look artificial. Life exudes from them. Finally, an array of typical rural Eritrean images zoom past your inner eye repeatedly, as though they are haunting you, back in home as you lay in your couch. The overlapping hills and vales afar, as a background on the canvas, the tall green trees, around which the gullible women and men in traditional white attire cluster to receive their morning lessons of alphabets and numbers, and the scattered cattle grazing here and there—all reveal amply an African life style that is characteristic of the rural setting of Eritrea. True to the vibrant life they all abound in, Yodit’s paintings enliven all these indeed.
After a careful study of her paintings for sometime and deeply moved by the sharp touch of her painting to which I referred earlier, in which she portrayed the life styles of all the nine women groups in Eritrea, I thought of purchasing it as a measure of encouragement. Around this time, there was a visiting BESO consultant Tony Matthew’s from England. After purchasing it, I felt it would be worthy of presenting it to Tony though the hands of my Director Baslios Zamos in her presence itself with due acknowledgement to her superb skills of painting. It indeed had an electrifying effect on her. Later, she had drawn the cover page of my exhaustive Research Project—Media Education in Eritrean Education, which I had done for the Department of Adult and Media Education on the instructions of my Director General Gebrezghi Dinam, popularly known as Acha. It was so beautifully drawn as to remain a life long memoir for my work. Both my Director and the Director General took interest in the cover page drawn by her and gave her simple suggestions to make it more relevant to the concept.
Yodit’s journey of painting had received a very good impetus subsequently. She has no look back now. She has quickly widened her horizon of imagination and started painting taking cues from her own Director Tocabbo. She presented her paintings, which signified and symbolized the nation’s mission for expanding the Adult Education, at Sawa Youth Festival held last month at Sawa. Now some of her paintings are on the show at Expo. All of them reflect not only on the inner spiritual stuff of the individual but also evoke a sense of commitment to which they are dedicated.
Like much present day of girls, Yodit too had a tough line of life. Though her parents and sisters did not study as much as she did, they gave her a lot of freedom to go through elementary, junior and secondary school education. Yodit finished her secondary education at 10th class level and joined the art school run by Chinese Professor Yayu. After a good time grounding in painting under him, she moved to learn from Gim and Miam both Chinese Teachers in the field of painting. She very gratefully acknowledges the training she received under them even today. Her eyes twinkled with sparkles as she narrated her training under these eminent Chinese Professors. While struggling to retain her skills of painting, she did her national service as defense soldier between 1995-2000. She attended another workshop on painting at Mahabar for 20 days. At the end of her training in the painting, she fortunately got the offer in the Department of Adult and Media Education, Ministry of Education, Asmara. It gives her ample opportunity to show her artistic talents but it would be all the more appreciable if she gets some financial assistance and/or a fellowship for her higher learning and training in painting abroad either in the Europe or in the US.
At the end of all this, what stand between her and me as a bridge of communication are her marvelous, enthralling and unique paintings and nothing else, for she doesn’t speak a word in English; nor could I speak a sentence in Tigrigna. Is not silence the best way of communication as put by great Indian Seers for ages? As long as Yodit’s paintings keep speaking, no other communication is worth around, and I am convinced of it. Look at her paintings in Expo now, you too feel the same.