Q & A: Theo Eshetu on His Video Art

Theo Eshetu's video installation
Theo Eshetu's video installation, "Brave New World II," is on display at the African Art Museum. Photo courtesy of the African Art Museum

A video artist born of mixed African-European descent, Theo Eshetu has spent his career presenting images of his global identity. His work, Brave New World II, is currently on display in the African Art Museum. The piece is a series of moving images that includes everything from cereal boxes to dance groups to planes taking off from the runway. The video is projected on a TV screen inside of a mirrored box set into the wall, which reflects the screen in the shape of a globe.

Eshetu is speaking tomorrow evening at 7 p.m. at the African Art museum. I caught up with him recently about finding artistic solutions to practical problems, technology, and his inspiration for doing art.

How did you get into video?

I was studying to become a photographer, and while studying I was in a communications course. I was interested in art, especially art with communication media, or media art. At the time, video was something very new, and it seemed to me that there was far more to discover in doing research in video than in photography.  Video was so new that one wasn’t quite sure what the art of video was. So I thought, well, that’s a good path to go on. I started making videos to discover what the art of video is, what can possibly make it an artform, and how I can use it as a medium of expression rather than of communication.

What is one of your favorite aspects of the video medium?

I think the most striking thing about video is the fact of its strong relationship with reality. Painting obviously has a certain distance from reality, photography is already quite a bit closer to reality, film is pretty close to reality, but somehow video and television seem to be able to show you reality. One starts asking oneself, what is reality? If this video image I’m seeing can represent reality, what is there in reality that’s worth inquiring or defining?

Another interesting thing is the fact that we all accept that television is a very influential medium and it influences our perception of the world. We know what’s fake and what’s real, but somehow it gives us an image of the world, how places are, how we are. Therefore, [I use] the same medium as television to create or construct an artistic message, a sort of personal reality rather than an institutional reality or a political reality. In the hands of an artist, [video] becomes something different, and you can have a different kind of reading of it. So that individual aspect I think is a very powerful thing.

How is your work about global identity?

I started making videos to use my own identity as a subject matter. In other words, my identity is made up of being of Ethiopian father, Dutch mother, born in London, live in Rome, so there’s a whole complicated network of cultures that are dialoguing with each other within my own being. An attempt to reproduce that is what most of my work seems to be about. It’s not really the work of an African artist or a European artist, but it’s really the work of what the world looks like when you in fact have different cultural influences within you.

I think that that vision of a world where different cultures are interacting with each other is something that is very relevant today, and its also characteristic of the medium of video and television. In other words, it’s a medium that can be broadcast via satellite, it can be relayed simultaneously in different continents in countries, and therefore somehow it has to communicate different things to different people around the world. It’s not an Italian film for an Italian audience that understands the Italian language. These are works that put into relationship the union, clashes or harmony between different cultures. Some videos, I do that in an explicit, specific way, and in other videos I do it in a more abstract, poetic way, and I would say Brave New World is a more abstract poetic approach.

How did you come up with the mirrored box piece of your work?

It really came about as a kind of a solution to a problem. I was invited to do an exhibition in a museum, and the budget was quite limited. The problem was how to create a new video work for an exhibition that was planned to be a very important exhibition here in Rome without having the possibility of doing a lot of filming, a lot of editing and at the same time not having many TV sets that I wanted originally to use to create a piece. So I had to come up with some kind of solution to do something that was quite stunning or attractive and at the same time I didn’t have the budget to do so.

It was basically just messing around in the bathroom, and looking at my bathroom mirror that I noticed that by moving the mirror of the medicine cabinet, it created a kind of interesting effect. So I thought, hey, what would happen if instead of just the light, there was a TV set, and instead of just mirrors on the sides there was also mirrors on the top and on the bottom. So it just sort of came about through trying to solve a problem and almost desperation for wanting to do something visually striking with something very simple.

One would have to be a genius to just have that idea. But if you just go through the process of thinking and doing and trying and making mistakes and trial and error, you come up with a solution that you wouldn’t have thought of.

How and where were the images recorded?

They were a collection of images that I had shot on Super 8 in my travels around the world. There’s no real logic to my editing. I chose the Super 8 images because I don’t generally want to celebrate the video as something technologically advanced that’s going to solve all our problems. I don’t believe in technological advancement as making better art. But I think that technology can be a useful tool, and therefore the idea of using Super 8 was to use old technology and yet do something cutting edge that seemed to be all digital but in fact it was done with old, super 8 technology. I like the fact that Super 8 evokes memory as well.

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