Merikokeb Berhanu, born in 1977, is a contemporary artist living and working in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Drawn to painting from an early age, she attended the University of Fine Arts and Design in Addis from which she graduated in 2002. She has since set up the Nubia Studio with a group of fellow artists, a dynamic cultural centre and studio space in the heart of Addis Ababa that has been instrumental in supporting and promoting contemporary art practices in the Ethiopian capital.
Whilst deeply rooted in the strong tradition of painting that informs much of the current art teaching in her native country, Berhanu’s practice transcends the easily recognizable figurative “Ethiopian style” brought about by the country’s long artistic, cultural and political isolation.
In her paintings, abstract forms and dense backgrounds intertwine with reoccurring recognizable elements, ripened fruit, blooming flowers and stylised human forms. Inspired by everything that surrounds her as well as delving deep into her emotional state, her works explore a rich imagery that draws on aspects of every day life. Elements from contemporary urban life – aged constructions of corrugated iron sheets, masked sweepers, ghostlike silhouettes – blend with the fabric and landscape of the countryside, highlighting the ever present tension brought about by rapid urbanisation. Often informed by her dreams, whose vividness is enhanced by the rich, saturated colours in her canvases, her practice explores an intensely private world rendered with abstract, tight compositions whose elements are pushed to the front of the picture plane.
“I have never tried to communicate my paintings with words; I am always after the forms, lines and arrangement that can express the visual equivalent of my feelings and thoughts. I want the viewers of my work to ‘hear’ what the images have to say through their own power. Sensation can be experienced through elements of art. The life that we are passing through, light, line, the complexity and density of what surrounds us, the thick fog and smoke, happiness and hope, misery and bliss, all elements push me to think and paint. And let my perception be crystallised through visual elements as a form of language.”
Berhanu has travelled and exhibited extensively in Ethiopia, Germany, France, Uganda, Sudan and Djibouti.