|Eye on Eritrea 2|
Throughout Eritrea roads, health services, schools, electricity, and water systems were gradually installed or improved. Students and teachers volunteered for these projects in the summer vacations. After secondary school, they participated in the mandatory National Youth Service for a year and a half.
In Asmara, my sketching began early as most often I was awakened by the pre-dawn imam’s call to the faithful, followed by the ringing of Catholic and Coptic church bells. Frequently, I joined mothers and grandmothers as they walked to an expansive plaza in front of the stately St. Mary’s Coptic Church. The Virgin, painted in shades of pale blue, greeted them from a mural high above the church entryway.
Wrapped in traditional white cotton shawls against the morning chill, these Tigrinya women began each day with prayers and meditation. Their open palms were raised high toward the Virgin, held before their chests or placed on the ground as they knelt and kissed the earth. I never tired of sketching their statuesque forms in diverse prayer gestures or their intense features, filled with the painful memory of loss, now silhouetted by the first glimmer of daylight, and the rays of the Compassionate Madonna.
Their soulful forms are also portrayed in Coptic Altar, a triptych. In the centre, the Virgin I painted is based on a sketch of a village woman with a newborn lamb in her arms. I also included men playing the big ceremonial drums at the conclusion of the Sunday Mass. Their reverberations resounded like a communal heartbeat.
I also enjoyed sketching at the Asmara grain markets and warehouses where villagers came to sell, buy, or deliver sacks of grain to be milled into flour. Inside, clouds of grain dust filled the air as teams of young girls vigorously sifted, sorted, and cleaned endless baskets, bushels, and sacks of grain, including tef or injera, the Eritrean soul food. Flat and circular, injera is like a thick sourdough pancake about eighteen inches in diameter. Sections are torn off and dipped into sauces — zighney, a meat sauce, houmis (chickpeas), and addis (barley), all ladled into the center of the injera. This traditional meal shared with friends provided many good memories.
Experiencing Eritrea year after year through many seasons has been like a seesaw, first rising high like a good harvest, now weighted down by a senseless war. It was impossible for me to remain immune to the suffering of people who were more than statistics; they were friends. During 1998 and 1999, I returned to sketch in war zones, refugee and relocation camps visited with artist friends and Wayne Kessler. First experiencing Eritrea as a Peace Corps volunteer, Wayne now works with NGOs to provide food, tents and water. The downside of the seesaw was an experience I did not expect to have in Eritrea. Gradually, a second group of paintings began to emerge, Eritrea/Ethiopia: Prayers for peace, the title for both an exhibit and a specific sequence of five images.
This series also includes images inspired by earlier journeys to Ethiopia’s ancient Christian and Coptic churches of Auxum, Gondar, and Lalibela. Seeking solace through prayers, I then realised, was a daily ritual performed for centuries by Tigrinya mothers on both sides of the border, concerned for their family’s and children’s wellbeing.
At Gondar, I was particularly fascinated by the motif of painted angels that dominated the church walls. While some angels appeared like patient protectors and smiled, others looked downward, almost cynically, on our human follies. Angels then became a unifying motif in Eritrea/Ethiopia: Prayers for peace, a series of paintings created to portray grief as well as hope.
In the central painting, The St Mary altar, the people who surround the Virgin could be Eritrean or Ethiopian as they all seek solace for their suffering not only from wars but recurring drought, hunger, and disease.
In Prayers for peace, a mother with upraised arms is a symbolic tree of life. Angels rise from her hands, possibly suggesting that people have the potential to reshape their own destiny.
I never expected to be invited to drink tea or coffee in a war zone or refugee camp. I also learned about non-traditional survival foods distributed to hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees by national and international relief agencies. As the border war escalated, food, water and shelter became scarce and many people would not survive, especially children, already weak and sick.
The theme of loss is repeated in my painting Eritrea/Ethiopia: Where have all the fathers gone. Overseen by the compassionate Virgin, three generations — mothers, children, and grandmothers — pray and weep beside rows of burial crosses, while above the crescent moon and star of Islam rise high. During my recent visit, it was emotionally difficult to realise how quickly the earth continues to soak up every generation’s blood.
A leading contemporary American artist, Betty LaDuke is also known for her documentation
of the work of women artists all over the world. She lives in Oregon