Dawit Abebe’s paintings continue the lineage of using art as a social commentary, and in some respects documents his native Ethiopia’s modernization. His old male subjects, all naked or near naked with their backs turned toward the viewer, coupled with symbolic bits of papers, official documents, fragments of numbers form a surreal scene where the focus is not on who the subject is, but what he might be experiencing, what his world has become, under the effects of modernity.
In an interview he said of the use of numbers and official documents that “they have become a part of our identity”, suggesting that identity is a core theme his works, and of mass-surveillance that “God used to be the only one who could see what we do”.
In the No.2 Background series of paintings, all the subjects’ faces are hidden from view, as we can only see their backs, since who they are doesn’t really matter anymore; their human identity has been replaced a number/official document. Their nakedness, contrasted with a shadowy tie wearing figure, symbolizes their poverty; they have nothing, can hide nothing from surveillance cameras everywhere, and what they have they clutch tightly for fear of losing it.
These paintings also bring to mind the work of Lorna Simpson’s Outline (1990) in which issues of race and gender inequality are discussed; the photos are taken mug-shot style and the subject also has turned her back, with placards forcing the viewer to think of the compound-nouns (back-lash, back-ground, back-pay etc.) that describe her plight in American society as a African American woman and also as a ‘property’ of a corporation in You’re Fine, You’re Hired (1988).
I think through his paintings, Dawit Abebe has been able to find freedom.