Patchwork Freedoms: Tegene Kunbi

Press release
Primo Marella Gallery Milan is pleased to present, for the first time in its italian spaces, the new solo exhibition of the ethiopian artist Tegene Kunbi - Patchwork Freedoms",
Born in 1980 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, TEGENE KUNBI completed a Painting and Art Education degree at the Fine Arts School at the University of Addis Abeba in 2004 and went on to teach at Kotebe College Academy.
With the help of the prestigious DAAD scholarship, he left Ethiopia in 2008 to study at the Universität der Künste Berlin, where he obtained a Master of Fine Arts in 2011. He has been part of multiple group and solo exhibitions in Germany and abroad as well as collaborative international projects and workshops, for example in Paris, Casablanca, New York, Nairobi, Nouakchott, and Amsterdam.
Kunbi is the winner of the Main Prize Grand Prix Léopold Sédar Senghor at Dak’Art Biennale 2022.
The artist received this prestigious award directly from Macky Sall, the President of the Republic of Senegal, at the opening of the 14th Biennial of Contemporary African Art 2022.
In one of his many interviews he states: « Colour is a vocabulary I use to give voice to aspects of my cultural heritage. Each hue is a conversation with the next, producing a sense of harmony and tension. Tonality, density and the rectilinear grid are also an integral part of the work.» and keeps going: «Through this language I convey the dynamism and complexities within my personal experience and that of my community. The underlying structure of the paintings repeats across a large body of work. This warp and weft is intrinsic to that of the Ethiopian textiles used in religious ceremonies that are at once inspiration source and more recently a material within the works. This aesthetic framework is reinforced and challenged all at once throughout the painting process which in itself is a ritual and also fight to reclaim a form of spirituality.»
Tegene Kunbi's works are glimpses of colour, vibrant matter capable of striking the viewer. The strong, blinding tone, the full-bodied use of brushstrokes echo a kind of primitivism: the adoration of the sight and the primal hues of the earth and of course of Ethiopia. The oil paint seems to come to life and to have its own support: from the bright greens reminiscent of expanses of grass and plants, to the bright reds and oranges, a clear reflection of the clayey depressions typical of the African land. The blues often so intense undoubtedly echo the absolute purity of the sky and sea. The tones Tegene Kunbi makes use of are those of his land, of an ancient and rich land, for many years, and too many still, forced to be on its knees. A land that is not distant and barren as it is often portrayed, but rather full, vital and graspable. That's why such textural brushstrokes are made; there is no intention of description, Kunbi does not merely wish to portray landscapes, what the artist yearns for is instead to bring out the organic nature of the soil, the frightening power of the sea and the crisp movement of the foliage. This is not a landscape shot; it is the desire for revenge, an affirmation of the fact that there is still, on the part of an entire heritage, the soil in which its culture was born and from which it was schooled.
Kunbi's skill allows him to range from small works to much larger surfaces, a quality and dexterity that allows him to play with the size and volume of the canvases. There is no fear in him, there is no dread, what is enacted is pure mastery of the painting medium, there is no hesitation or misunderstanding: it is like breathing. It is life, a first need to pour out, to take hold of space and show itself in its wonder and ponderousness. The grids that are used continuously do not stop the expressive power of the work but rather channel it. The use of colours is striking, although chained to a spatial grid and seemingly seeming to limit them, the latter is in fact incapacitated to restrict and restrain them; it is undoubtedly a reprise of abstract expressionism and even better of Rothko's tonal works. Instead, the massive use of underlying modulation harkens back to Mondrian's endless chaotic checkerboards. What distinguishes Tegene Kunbi from the two twentieth-century painters, however, is the introduction of fabric as if to emphasize once again the sacredness and evidence of an existence: Ethiopia, its people, its history and rituals. The fabric, which he himself says is a new act, almost newly born, is what most of all allows the artist's works to stand out; they are integrated perfectly with the tonal background and becoming one with it, but, at the same time, they have this ability to embellish it, to give it more vividness; we are not talking about the colour, but of the spirit.
In fact, the chosen yarn, i.e., that of religious use, is used precisely in what we would call a particular context, and this further enriches it with meaning. At first we could agree to describe Tegene Kunbi's works as to an entire struggle made up of surrenders, battles ended in equal measure or crushing victories... at a second moment everything that can be observed takes new shape, steps back, stabilizes and is clothed, literally with sacredness. The guerrilla urge to overpower the other is nothing more than the desire to get outside. It is the passion that celebrates life and life itself that exalts and glorifies the history of a people. In doing so, the colours hymn to ancient stories, songs, and hopes made up of gestures and prayers. And all this finds its place precisely because of the textiles ready to tint the ancient dances made of archaic melodies and bright colours. Painting is described by Kunbi as a ritual, but what is a ritual if not continuous gestures and movements actualized to brush and colour precise moments of life? What is a ritual if not a robe made of remembrances and celebration of past history? What is a ritual if not the desire to unite yourself in a collective dance made up of people you feel are an integral part of the same family? And it is precisely by unraveling this web made up of questions, a bit like following breadcrumbs, that we get to the heart of these works and their poetic: colour, on the canvases, certainly engages in a struggle, but this does not involve the attempt at a deliberate mutiny that leads one to be against the other, but, on the contrary, a cohesion, a union on several fronts, in order to succeed in embarking on a single journey to the discovery and unveiling of who we are.
Installation Views