Michael Tsegaye

The Bathers

Until the 1980’s, Lake Alamaya was Ethiopia’s second-largest lake. Since then, this body of water, which had always been shallow, has been shrinking continually. Global warming is thought to be one cause, but there are nonetheless local reasons for the anthropogenic climate signals as well: in recent years, massive amounts of water have been increasingly diverted from the lake for household use, but above all to irrigate the most important cash crops – coffee and khat.

This intervention in the lake’s water supply has in turn two reasons: the growth of agriculture and the absence of rain due to global climate change. A better-known example of a similar process of dessication on a major scale is the Aral Sea in Central Asia. A major agricultural science university on the east shore of Lake Alamaya references the times in which the lake’s water reserves were still unconcernedly regarded as a central instrument for agricultural planning.

Michael Tsegaye has a degree in painting, lives in Addis Abeba and knows how to approach political themes through the aesthetic back door. After he was forced to stop painting due to an allergy to solvents, he decided to take up photography. He has developed an unmistakeable style in his work with this medium that references his artistic roots in painting: seemingly palpable images emerge from the materials he photographs and their structures. Thus, in his photo series of boys bathing in the lake, the evenly brown water appears like a soft mass of colour on a painter’s canvas. The boys immerse themselves in this mass and sometimes stick out a foot, and then an arm.

Tsegaye could have captured the theme of Lake Alamaya’s process of silting up (soon hardly than a mud pond will be left) much more drastically if he had made use of the classical means of documentary photography in climate crisis regions. But in order to move beyond cliché images, he generates a field of tension between action and information – the boys are obviously having fun diving and splashing around; they have become accustomed to the muddy water. But the viewer sees children playing in filthy water and is left with an almost physical feeling of uneasiness.

It seems human beings are able to adapt to an environment that is changing due to their impact – but how high is the price of this adaptation? And how can the limits of human adaptability be defined? As early as 1972, the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, in many respects ahead of his time, had already been pushing an oxygen bar he had made himself through Manhattan. He titled this construction, made of two wheel-chairs and an oxygen bottle, “Fresh Air Cart“ – an action that was amusing and an alarm signal at the same time. Tsegaye’s photographs are very similar in this respect, as they deal with precisely these two levels and therefore penetrate all the more deeply into the viewer’s perception.

Until now, there have been very few artists in the Ethiopian art scene like Michael Tsegaye, who thematise ecological issues. At the same time, the country is far ahead of the West where recycling is concerned. Out of sheer necessity, reusing and repurposing materials is part of every-day life. At the Merkato in Addis, the largest bazaar in Africa, the recycling section with its colourful plastic barrels and canisters, the mountains of iron and heaps of rubber sandals, is part of the largest section. A young Ethiopian film-maker filmed a documentary there last winter, because she assumes that due to economic growth and an increasing standard of living the recycling section will not exist much longer.

Seen from far off, Lake Alamaya is still a beautiful sight, at least if one is unfamiliar with its former shape and size. Lush green grasses grow in the meadows, and the stunningly blue sky is reflected on the water surface. At first glance, one does not suspect at all that the little boys there have to take a mud bath.
Vera Tollmann works as a freelance author and curator in Berlin.

Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V. 2011


    Michael Tsegaye (*1975 in Ethiopia) lives and works in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He graduated in painting at the Addis Ababa University School Of Fine Arts and Design in 2002, but gave up painting when he developed an allergy to oil paint. However, he found his real passion in photography. In his works he tries not to focus on poverty and hardship as it is part oft life in Ethiopia. He rather tries to concentrate on the rich cultural heritage and traditions of Ethiopia that are and were relatively free from outer influence for centuries. He took part in many exhibitions all around the world. Some of his latest exhibitions were Aksum Rediscovered: the Reinstallation of the Obelisk at the UNESCO Building in Paris in 2009 and Made in Ethiopia at GTZ Headquarters, Frankfurt in 2008.