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Artist Elias Sime: We aim to make noise through collaboration


The first time Ethiopian artist Elias Sime saw a motherboard, he thought it looked like a landscape.

Created by Sime and his collaborator Meskerem Assegued, “Tightrope” is a commentary on humanity, technology, and the environment – and how the three interact. On Sept 7, the Wellin Museum not only celebrated the opening reception of “Tightrope,” but also welcomed Sime and Assegued (who acted as translator) to Hamilton as part of the Wellin’s Artists in Conversation series. Johnson-Pote Director of the Wellin Tracy Adler guided the conversation.

Sime and Assegued have worked together for more than 20 years. They co-founded the Zoma Museum in Addis Ababa, which opened its doors this past March. Adler began the conversation by asking them about the nature of their collaboration and what collaboration as a whole meant to them.

Something I say all the time is that there is no sound that one hand makes. When you have two hands together, you can make sounds. And when you have more hands coming together, it creates tone, like music. We aim to make noise through collaboration.

Sime and Assegued discussed the making of “Flowers & Roots,” the site-specific sculpture that the two of them created this summer with the assistance of seven Hamilton students. The sculpture, a Saunders peony, pays homage to the species of flower developed at Hamilton in the early twentieth century by Professor Arthur Percy Saunders.

elias sime piece - wellin
The completed “Flowers & Roots” pays homage to the Saunders peonies. Photo: Vige Barrie

“When I first came here, I wasn’t sure how working [with the students] was going to work out...” Sime said. “[By the end, I realized,] ‘I’m giving them something, but I’m taking so much from them, too.’ I learned so much from them. There was such generosity and such a relationship that was created. Watching their passion and how they were working made me feel even happier. I wanted to get up the next morning and be with them. I couldn’t wait to see them the next day.”

“Tightrope” features intricate tableaus created with repurposed materials like motherboards, electrical wires, and computer keyboards. Despite the display of man-made materials, the works often evoke landscapes, plants, and other natural forms. Sime’s creations push, question, and play with the delicate balance between nature and technology.

“‘Tightrope’ came about because the country was tensed up,” Assegued said. “The world was also [tensed up]. So we had to come up with a title and we were talking about all the intensity and the tension and I thought, ‘I think we should call it “tightrope.”’

Elias Sime - Tightrope 8
Elias Sime. Tightrope 8, 2009-2014. Reclaimed electronic components on panel, 44 1/16 x 70 13/16 in. (112 x 180 cm). Private Collection, New York. © Elias Sime. Photo: Adam Reich Photography

Sime loved Assegued’s suggestion.

“Technology is wonderful,” Sime said. “It has created all sorts of wonderful outcomes. But I also have a lot of questions about it, too. Just like a tightrope, technology, if we are not careful, if we do not know what we are doing, it can bring us down.”

The three also discussed the common misconception that Sime’s projects use recycled materials, when that is actually not the case. He does not collect recycled objects and create collages or structures with whatever he can find. Rather, he actively seeks out the materials he requires, which can take anywhere from days to years to acquire.

“The hardest part of what I do is collecting the materials,” Sime said. “The emotions are there, but the hardest thing is finding the material to express them.”

At the core of Sime’s work is human contact and connection. His pieces, which include swirling braided wires and colorful dynamic circuit boards, highlight the humanity in the man-made, and serve as perspective to connect us, our environment, and technology. But he is also asking us to connect with one another.

“Our body, it’s circular, it’s not straight,” Sime said. “Our computers, our machines are straight. When I write ‘I love you,’ it’s straight. But when I touch and say, ‘I love you,’ it’s not straight.”

“Tightrope” was curated by Adler and is on view until December 8.

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