November 2013

Eric Gottesman | One Needs to Listen to the Characters One Creates

Artist Eric Gottesman explores the relationship between art, politics, risk and legacy through his revisitation of a controversial Ethiopian novel in One Needs To Listen To The Characters One Creates, an exhibition at Hamiltonian Gallery from November 23 –December 23, 2013 with an opening reception on Saturday, November 23 from 7-9 pm.

During the height of the Derg dictatorship in Ethiopia, journalist Baalu Girma secretly wrote the work Oromaye 1984 while working as an employee of the regime. Although a work of fiction, the book cleverly critiqued the military dictatorship through the narrative of government employee Tsegaye Hailemariam, a character whose life and experiences bore uncanny parallels to Girma’s own. Although considered a seminal modernist novel in Ethiopia today, Oromaye was banned after its publication and resulted in the death of the author five months later.

In this piece of a multi-part project, artist Eric Gottesman revisits the opening of Oromaye and explores the courageous and controversial figure of Baalu Girma through re-enactments in video and photography. Gottesman, who translated the first three chapters of the novel from Amharic into English, reinterprets fragments of the novel, and in so doing reflects on the passion of the writer, the risk inherent in the artistic process and the consequences that result when censorship and the need for creative expression collide.


Artist Statement: A Letter to Baalu Girma, author of Oromaye

November 22, 2013
(29 years after you published Oromaye, 28 1/2 years after you were assassinated)


Dear Baalu,

I suspect you might laugh at me. Laboring over how you spent your days and nights. What stories went through your head. How deeply you loved your wife. What the nature of writing is. What tie you or your characters wore. So many things about you intrigue me. Your role in Ethiopian literature. The blurring between your life and fiction. Why did you continue to work for the Derg?* Did you not see something was wrong? You wrote beyond when it was comfortable, safe or appropriate, devoted your life to a vision of art that stands in opposition to violent power…I have so much to learn.

The work here is only Me’arif 1, the first chapter. The deeper I get into Oromaye, the more I realize that I am only at the beginning. I feel like Tsegaye when he boarded his plane on page 30. Ahead lies the epic journey. I know it ended badly, for Tsegaye as for his creator, but I wonder if you existed in a world you created, and was it better than the world in which you lived?

Anyway, Gash Baalu, you haven’t missed much. What happens now is not so different than when you were here. Still men long for power and abuse it. Still writers write, and artists create, sometimes in opposition, and sometimes just for enjoyment, always at great risk. In revisiting your life, I want my art to confront political oppression like yours did, to eradicate deep barriers to justice, equity and creativity. The method you used was indirect: you wrote a novel. Readers had to read between the lines. And they did. I learned from that, I tried to make my moves subtly.

But all this, ever, in pursuit of joy. This I know you would understand; your daughter told me how you used to drive the streets of Addis Ababa at night in your VW bug and park across from the nightclubs in Piassa, watching people going in and out, observing. How they touched each other. What ties they wore. It is endlessly fascinating, isn’t it?


Selam gashiye,



* The Derg was a military dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 until 1987.



click here to download a copy of the press release

November 23 – December 23, 2013

By appointment only from: 
December 26 – January 4, 2014

Opening Reception: 
Saturday, November 23
7-9 pm

Artist Talk: 
December 17
7 pm

Hamiltonian Artists:
Eric Gottesman

2013Nancy DalyEric Gottesman