Artist Betelhem Makonnen is everywhere in Austin this season.
Just recently, she won the $15,000 Tito’s Prize, funded by Tito's Handmade Vodka and presented by Big Medium, an art advocacy group. In November, she opens a two-artist show at Women and Their Work Gallery with Stephanie Concepcion Ramirez. In March, she returns to center stage with a one-artist show at Big Medium’s gallery in the Canopy Austin complex.
Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Makonnen, 47, came to this country at age 9. She has lived and worked in Los Angeles, Miami Beach, Fla., Rio de Janeiro and Chicago, where she just earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute. In the 1990s, she shaped her own curriculum about the history and literature of the African diaspora while a student at the University of Texas, before the school established its African and African Diaspora Studies department.
Recently, she has been working on complex works that employ mirrors, acetate, photos, videos, sand and stones and that sometimes include cellphone images of the artist. We talked to the prize-winning artist about her art.
American-Statesman: You've said that you work at a glacial pace. What is it about time? And what does it mean to your art?
Makonnen: Stemming from my own personal history to my understanding of history in general, I am always thinking about how we misunderstand time. We insist on it being linear. We insist on a separateness of past, present and future. I perceive the present as being conjugated, in the sense that all the tenses are collapsed together and exist simultaneously. So history is not something in our past but something very present in the present, and the future is a potential already in the making. We are time beings.
How is this reflected in the materials and process of your work?
Be it video, photography, working with rock, sand, acetate, mirrors: They are speaking of time and are made of time to me in different scales and registers. All my work starts with a lot of research. Then the work takes form. I'm interested in the work performing the concept rather than representing it. I want it to do something, not just be something. So you have constant interactions, like reflections and refractions through the mirrors, you have a sense of transparency because of the acetate. In terms of materiality, what you see is what it is. There's no post edit. The images are one click.
How do people interact with your work?
With the current photo-based works that I am making, my desire is they be watched and not just looked at. So they perform like a moving image. The viewers tend to move around the work because there's no fixed point of view. The viewer physically interacts with the work. You get a sense that you can't really figure out something definitive and fixed about what or who you are seeing.
See examples of Makonnen's work at her website, betelhemmakonnen.com.