Originally from Ethiopia, Eyakem Gulilat’s work is rooted in a quest for belonging. Gulilat focuses on the complexities of cross-cultural encounter, perceptions of time, memory, and place. His photography questions the differences between subject and photographer; the borders that distinguish us from one another; and the ways our perceptions shift when we view each other through the camera’s lens. Gulilat obtained a BA from Abilene Christian University and MFA from the University of Oklahoma. He was selected as an artist in residence at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, New York; at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon; and at Hardesty Art Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Gulilat has won several awards including the 2012 National Endowment for the Arts grant in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa; the Oklahoma Visual Arts Fellowship; and the National Photography Fellowship Competition at Midwest Center for Photography. His photography work has been exhibited throughout the U.S and in Canada and has been acquired for private and public collections.
In Mother’s Prayers, Eyakem Gulilat tells a beautiful lie. Dressed in traditional white cottons, he conjures childhood memories, from afternoon prayers to the fruits from a family garden. In one picture, Gulilat participates in Timkat, an Ethiopian baptism ceremony often followed by a procession. Yet these photographs lie in the way memories do. They recall moments from the Nazret-born artist’s 1980s childhood, but Gulilat stages them in an entirely different landscape, that of the contemporary United States.
The shift of these images—in both time and place—gets at the crux of photography as a medium: Gulilat invokes both the photograph’s status as a trace of an image before the camera and its capacity to create illusions that draw us into a narrative about belonging, memory, and the way we tell ourselves stories to convince us of their truths. The photographs here act as agents that visibly transpose time and place and, at once, erase those very seams, so that we see Ethiopian rites and lands instead of Oregon waters or Oklahoma plains. In so doing, they give truth to the lie of nostalgia and the ways we forge our identities by retelling our past.
Many of these cultural rituals are collective in spirit, but Gulilat re-enacts them in the United States as solitary endeavors. Whether he is shrouded among ferns, emerging from water, or herding livestock, each photograph’s composition heightens the sense of solemnity and solitude. This singling out is fundamental to how photographs function as memories—even as we participate in and recall events together, we snip parcels of time into discrete moments and encode them individually. As we shape our identities, we recollect those moments and invest them with individual meaning.
Some images recall specific moments. One offers the viewer a capped bottle, a potent signifier of the Derg, the Communist military government led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who scattered blood as a warning to potential dissidents. Yet the photograph itself strips away that historical specificity. Sited on a table-clothed altar of sorts, centered in a nondescript landscape, the bottled blood offers us an uneasy ambiguity. Is it a relic from a violent rite? An object for an unknown ceremony? An untapped life-source or unexplored family link?
Mother’s Prayers collects Gulilat’s recreated memories in an album format, a presentation that directs the viewer’s engagement with the images. Taken altogether, the photographs remind us how selective memories can be; scanning from picture to picture reinforces the gaps in time that nostalgic storytellers often elide. The collected images also allow us to trace connections across scenes, to fill in details and sketch out stories. In one pair of images, a traditionally garbed man shoulders a heavy bundle of coffee, an important cash crop in Ethiopia. He embodies the physicality of labor, of its ties to subsistence farming and man’s efforts to wrest the land under control. In a pendant picture, that same bundle defies the weight of gravity; it becomes a plaything. Gulilat presents the twinned conditions of work and play as he explores the complexities of Ethiopian identity.
These images raise an issue central to Mother’s Prayers: the discovery of the self. Colonizing new landscapes as the sites of his past, the artist is the only figure captured in the photos. The photographs literally explore place-making as Gulilat forges his present in the United States by enacting—and picturing—coming-of-age rituals from his boyhood. The picturing is important for the ways in which it makes his internal thoughts visible, tangible scenes—it renders them concrete. Moreover, the photos represent a doubling at the heart of an immigrant’s identity and at the core of subjectivity itself. The project’s title reinforces this doubling of one’s identity, seen through a parent’s hopeful gaze as she envisions her child’s development. Here the mother stands in for “home,” which itself materializes as recollected traditions rather than a specific abode. The prayers cast our attention to the future, even as the images waver between past and present.
The photographs also invoke another doubling in the dislocations from Africa to North America and from the 1980s to today—they suggest the gaze of outsiders on the seemingly strange practices of someone from another culture. Which culture—Ethiopian or American—is the outsider here? Through Mother’s Prayers, Guliliat steps between cultures and asserts the traditions as the stories we tell, making ourselves anew, each day, in the re-telling.
Kirsten Olds, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Art History at The University of Tulsa. Her research focuses on modern and contemporary European and American art and visual culture, and her essays have appeared in Art Journal, Journal of Fandom Studies, Art Focus Oklahoma, and Art Practical.
Eyakem Guliliat lives in Oklahoma and completed his residency at Light Work in August 2016. www.eyakem.com