Ethiopian artist Dawit Abebe’s Jerba paintings were first exhibited in Addis Ababa in 2015. Jerba, a word that means “back” or “background,” is a series of mixed media and acrylic paintings concerned with historical memory and the political and cultural accounts attending to that memory. Abebe’s jerbas explore the contemporary predicaments of Ethiopia, where ethnic tensions have proliferated and where the trademarks of the human body are objectified to one’s ethnic identity rather than to the body’s lived experience as a human being. The evocative power of the composition, texture, and detail of Abebe’s paintings in representing the human image is exquisite while adding a conceptual component that conjures up, for instance, notions of memory and nostalgia, conflicting imaginations of the nation, and the place of Ethiopia in the passage of history. While the Jerba series skillfully navigates the perspective of the past and its remnants in the interpretation of the present, the visual metaphors connect personally with the spectator. Seemingly faint voices transpire from individual panels, and sounds communicate with the viewer through particular stories. Likewise, impressions of silence also materialize, as if the jerbas are telling the viewer that there are histories and stories one cannot comprehend. Abebe’s critical engagement through these works responds to the changing pressures of time and place, particularly the ambiguities of modern citizenship in the Ethiopian state.

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