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Over the past 10 years, Ethiopian artist Elias Sime has become internationally known for his large-scale modular artworks made from electrical wires, transistors, cell phone components, computer keyboards, and motherboards. Sime sources these materials from the Merkato in his hometown of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the biggest open-air market in Africa, where hundreds of vendors sell objects passed down a line of global trade. He patiently collects materials over time, sometimes waiting years to accumulate a sufficient amount to complete an artwork.

Photo credit: Brett Moen

While his works are abstract, they evoke images of nature and organic phenomena; wires twist into a wisp of smoke, the shiny surfaces of motherboards mimic light reflecting off water, broken keyboards echo a bird’s-eye view of an imaginary city. Sime does not re-create specific landscapes or places, but his allusions to the natural world are an important reminder that nature itself shows the effects of human intervention. According to Sime: “Humans are the bridge between the natural and built environments. We cannot be separated from either one.”[1] Sime recognizes the uneasy balance between the value of technological advances and their ambivalent impact on society and the environment. He is particularly interested in how devices intended to connect us while simultaneously mediate our interactions and result in massive amounts of e-waste. His projects transform these formerly functional objects into something new, allowing them to transcend their original utilitarian purpose.

Elias Sime, Ethiopian, born 1968; Tightrope: Noiseless 4, 2019; reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel; 109 x 122 1/2 inches; Anderson Cooper Collection 2020.142; © Elias Sime 2019, image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York

Elias Sime, Ethiopian, born 1968; Tightrope: Noiseless 4 (detail), 2019; reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel; 109 x 122 1/2 inches; Anderson Cooper Collection 2020.142; © Elias Sime 2019, image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York

On an unusually warm day in December 2019, Sime and his creative partner, curator, and anthropologist Meskerem Assegued visited St. Louis in preparation for the exhibition Currents 118: Elias Sime. Their first destination was Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, where they viewed the mounds of the ancient Native American city directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Sime’s focus on global phenomena extends beyond contemporary systems of communication and exchange to ancient histories of art and architecture and their unique visual languages. Standing on Monk’s Mound, Sime and Assegued discussed Ethiopia’s own historic mounds, which were built between the 8th and 15th centuries. With only one day in St. Louis before heading back to Ethiopia, there was just enough time to see the Gateway Arch, a  St.  Louis landmark and an outstanding achievement in sculpture and engineering.

Elias Sime, Ethiopian, born 1968; Tightrope: Noiseless 8, 2019; reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel; 90 x 128 inches; image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York 2020.145; © Elias Sime 2019

Sime’s experiences in St. Louis informed two new sculptures created for his exhibition, Tightrope: Eyes and Ears of a Bat 1 and 2. These large-scale, concave bowls invert the iconic forms of the mound and arch. The half-spherical shapes are covered with wires and electrical components, like freestanding versions of Sime’s iconic wall-hung assemblages. Braided and twisted electrical wires nailed into the bowls’ surfaces evoke both movement in nature and painterly brushstrokes. Sime chose their brown, terra-cotta, and green colors to allude to the shades of the Midwestern winter landscape he saw from the vantage point of Monk’s Mound. Through its unique materiality, Sime’s art expresses an astute commentary on environmental sustainability, the power of nature, global social connections, and the beauty of the utilitarian.

  • [1] Tracy L. Adler, Elias Sime: Tightrope, interview with Elias Sime and Meskerem Assegued (New York, London, Munich: DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2019), 175.

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