The tradition of staged studio photographs that flourished in most African countries continues in the African diaspora, even in the era of smartphones and the selfie. In a back room of a small studio near the old Central Bust Station of Tel Aviv, Abiel Amanuel has been photographing the Eritrean community since 2013: single, in pairs, threes and family groups. His studio becomes a safe space, where they can be themselves. He processes the photographs using Photoshop and grafts into them various components and backgrounds: landscapes, objects of classical architecture and modern furniture, flowers in vases. In addition, he operates the photographic manipulation that has become his photographs’ fingerprint: a background projection of the photographed figure, thus duplicating those who are being photographed…
Amanuel has been living in Tel Aviv since 2012, and opened his studio, Sol, a year after his arrival. Alicia Mersy, a Canadian artist, has been living in Tel Aviv on and off since 2011, and works with the African community in the south of the city. She and Amanuel went through hundreds of portraits filed on his computer, and chose a hundred images that together accumulate to a group portrait of a community created by the circumstances that lead men, women and families to leave their homes and seek shelter and a better future elsewhere.
The projected images in the exhibition are all images of men. Women do have their portrait taken at the studio, alone or with friends and family, but Amanuel refrains from presenting them, since they prefer not to have their portraits publicly exhibited. However, when Amanuel and Mersy title their project ASMARA POWR (2016), one is obviously reminded that the history, or at least the mythology, of Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, is linked with women: there were originally four villages that fought each other until the warriors’ wives persuaded the men to put an end to wars, unite and live together in peace. The villages’ union was originally called Arbate Asmara meaning, in Tigrinya, “the four [feminine plural] who made them unite.”
The metamorphoses which Asmara underwent are characteristic of the fate of African places under colonial rule: from being an Italian colony (Mussolini called it Little Rome), the city came under British occupation; the USA held an army listening station there; the UN voted to federate it under Ethiopian rule; in 1961 Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea as an Ethiopian region. This was the beginning of the War of Independence that lasted until 1991, when Eritrea gained independence.
The Eritrean men whom Amanuel photographs in Tel Aviv arrive at his studio in order to send home beautiful, inspirational photographs with an optimistic message. They dress immaculately, stand in formal poses and surrender together with the photographer to the fantasies enabled by photography, courtesy of the wonders of Photoshop. In fact, Amanuel uses digital manipulation in the same way manual manipulation was used by African photographers of the 20th century, such as Malick Sidibé, Hamidou Maiga, Seydou Keita or Samuel Fosso: hanging colorful fabrics as a background and placing various objects to create a different reality in the photographic space: more beautiful, more modern, more radiant.
ASMARA POWR is part of a body of work in which Mersy brands Amanuel’s studio (designing advertising flags and business cards, building his website, printing t-shirts and stickers), using branding as an artistic strategy to provide visibility to the Eritrean community.
Abiel Amanuel - 1987, Asmara, Eritrea Alicia Mersy - 1988, Montreal, Canada