Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart is a celebratory exhibition honoring the creative accomplishment of Ethiopia’s most prolific contemporary artist , Elias Sime. The scope of the work is staggering– the Santa Monica Museum‘s main gallery is completely filled with a selection of more than 100 of his mixed media pieces, all done within the last 20 years. Sime fabricates sculptures, stuffs goat skins, stitches canvases, and assembles thrones while thoroughly utilizing scraps from his surroundings. His intense labor of love elevates street culture, transforming trash and debris into treasured artifacts.
Sime was born and raised in the rough, crowded neighborhood of Cherqos, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, where he continues to live and work. Growing up in an area known for prostitution and the sale of contraband goods could have made for a grim childhood, but instead, Sime uses the experience to gleam his artistic vision. His intense connection to life in Cherqos is integral to his work. Sime frequently depicts vibrant open market scenes, stitching texture and atmosphere with varying hues of yarn and cloth. Hand stitching is intrinsic to Sime’s process, each scrap of yarn intentionally placed and purposefully sewn with the utmost care. Buttons, plastic, clothing, and bottle caps are flawlessly embedded in his compositions. For the children of Cherqos, Sime is a true model of resourcefulness and sustainability. Enchanted youth bring weekly offerings of rusty bottle caps and street detritus that permeate his work.
Eye of the Needle Eye of the Heart, was co-curated by world renown theater director and UCLA professor, Peter Sellars and revered Ethiopian curator and anthropologist, Meskerem Assegued. Together, they chose pieces in which Sime’s subject matter, symbolism, and iconography highlight the ineffable qualities of love. His stuffed goat skins are arranged in twosomes, as if embracing or communicating tender feelings. These sculptures share the name, What Is Love?, also the title of a previous exhibit curated by Assegued in Addis Abeba in February 2008.
Many pieces from What Is Love are present in Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart. Sellars also worked with Sime in 2006, when he included the artist in New Crowned Hope, the Viennese festival that celebrated the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Sellars’ enthusiasm for Sime is contagious, transferred to us through his role as narrator in a documentary film that accompanies the exhibition. The acclaimed filmmakers, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, met Sime in Ethiopia in December 2008 to document his daily life and bring insight to his process. Faris and Dayton’s work is an integral part of the exhibition. Without their visual journal of Sime’s life, we would not understand the full extent to which he integrates life and art. Especially impressive is the footage of Sime mixing mud and straw with his feet, then using the mixture to construct the home he is currently building in Addis Abeba. Like his art, Sime’s structure is a sanctuary of affection, kinship, and underlying oneness with nature.
Encouraged by his father, Elias Sime began making art at a young age. He taught himself how to sew and repair furniture, always collecting and recycling materials along the way. In 1986, he passed the rigorous entrance exam required to attend Addis Abeba University’s School of Fine Art and Design. There, he obtained a degree in graphic design. Sime has had numerous solo shows, and has participated in many group exhibitions including the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; the Dak’Art Biennale 2004, in Dakar, Senegal; the Zoma Contemporary Art Center and the National Museum in Addis Abeba. In mid-April, Sime’s thrones will be featured in Peter Sellars’ production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.