Skip to main content

Ethiopian artist Elias Sime creates monumental modular artworks out of salvaged technological materials including electrical wires, circuit boards, keyboards, and other computer parts. Currents 118: Elias Sime will showcase 12 new and recent works, including two new freestanding sculptures.

Sime sources his supplies from the Merkato in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the largest open-air market in Africa, sometimes waiting years to accumulate a significant amount of an item. He breaks, weaves, collages, and burns these materials before affixing them to modular panels that are put together into large assemblages. From a distance, these works resemble abstract paintings. Some suggest images of landscapes, outlines of figures, or aerial views of imagined cities. Yet, closer looking reveals that the compositions are made of woven wires, broken computer keys, motherboards, and other once functional materials. Currents 118 represents a new direction for Sime; he has created two large-scale, colorful domes for the exhibition. These sculptures were inspired by his visit to St. Louis and the Cahokia Mounds in present-day Illinois.

Sime’s works reference both Western art history and traditional Ethiopian textiles and architecture and are created using local, Ethiopian techniques for weaving wire. Rather than seeing the discarded objects he collects as recycled items, Sime is interested in how they are reclaimed and given new life in art. By transforming the discarded into the extraordinary, Sime allows us to see things in new ways.

The exhibition is curated by Hannah Klemm, associate curator of modern and contemporary art, with Molly Moog, research assistant.

  • Currents 118: Elias Sime

    Tightrope: Noiseless 1, 2019
    Elias Sime, Ethiopian, born 1968
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel
    112 5/8 x 173 1/4 inches
    Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah, purchased with funds from The Phyllis Cannon Wattis Endowment Fund 2020.139
    © Elias Sime 2019, image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York

    For over a decade, Ethiopian artist Elias Sime has created large-scale, modular artworks from discarded technological materials such as electrical wires, circuit boards, motherboards, and computer keys. Sime sources his materials from the Merkato in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the biggest open-air market in Africa, where hundreds of vendors sell objects passed down a long line of global trade. He patiently collects his materials over time, sometimes waiting years to accumulate a sufficient amount. Sime then breaks, weaves, collages, and burns these materials and affixes them to smaller rectangular supports that are combined to hang on the gallery wall, like paintings. Detailed, dense patterns in brilliant colors connect across these modules and form images that suggest natural shapes, cityscapes, and the outlines of figures.

    Sime’s materials, as well as his artworks, tell a story of globalization and an interconnected world. He sees the movement of technological refuse as a system connecting people across the earth who used and discarded these goods. His projects transform formerly functional items into something new, transcending their original utilitarian purpose. Incorporated into Sime’s vibrant works, these objects convey narratives: from histories of art that examine the beauty in repurposing the mundane, to new narratives that compel viewers to reconsider their own responsibilities within an increasingly globalized world.

    In 2009, Sime began an ongoing series of works titled Tightrope that encompasses most of his recent production, including several of  the works displayed in the exhibition. The series title allows Sime to recognize the uneasy balance between technological  progress and the impact these advances have on  humanity and the environment. The title also ties together the artworks in which he uses technological refuse as the primary material. Yet regarding the refuse, Sime states, “I never think of it as waste when I am working with it. Tightrope is more like an archive, a timeline of technology that may bring about certain memories in the viewer.” Rather than seeing the discarded objects as recycled, Sime is interested in how they are reclaimed and reused—given new life in art. Within Sime’s practice, various cast-off items become markers of time, associated with a period of use before they became obsolete.

    Currents 118: Elias Sime showcases art made by Sime from the Tightrope series within the last three years and six new objects made for this exhibition. From a distance, these large-scale works look like abstract paintings. Swirling lines, geometric patterns, and beautiful colors—from neons to earth tones—float across grids of rectangles. Upon closer examination, the lines that undulate across the surfaces reveal themselves to be meticulously woven wires, punctuated with tiny black nails that hold them in place. Computer keys and motherboards broken and glued onto the surface look like mosaic tiles from a distance. Sometimes found, collaged elements even break the picture plane and push out into 3-D space. The artworks in the Tightrope series embrace the balancing act between tradition and technology. Using traditional methods, such as his wire weaving technique, which Sime learned from local Ethiopian women, or collaging found objects, the artist underscores the powerful aesthetic effects of transforming the everyday into the sublime.

    Sime has added the modifier Noiseless, to recent works in the Tightrope series. For him, Noiseless refers to an open, unexpressed space for creativity and free association. In Tightrope: Noiseless 1, Sime coiled and braided green electrical wires into a vertical curvilinear pattern that conjures images of swaying grass or seaweed. Modular panels of these wires are interspersed with mosaic-like segments of computer motherboards and internal components that jut out into space. The painterly lines and sinuous curves of the pliable, woven wires complement the hard-edged, geometric forms of the motherboards. Here, Sime bridges sculpture and painterly modes, abstraction and naturalism, and creates a powerful marriage of hard and soft textures.

    Tightrope: Noiseless 8 (detail), 2019
    Elias Sime, Ethiopian, born 1968
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel
    90 × 128 inches
    Courtesy Artist and James Cohan, New York 2020.145
    © Elias Sime 2019

    While some works in the exhibition alternate between abstract, organic patterns and exposed technologies, others consist of collaged materials that recall urban landscapes seen from miles above. In Tightrope: Noiseless 11, computer keys and broken circuit boards mimic buildings or street grids, with woven wires replacing surrounding water or land masses. While these panels evoke views from an airplane, they do not represent a specific place. Instead they utilize the aesthetics of topographical and aerial vantages to expand the genre of landscape art. The materials themselves also connote a history of unknown places and carry invisible traces of where they originated, were used, and ultimately ended up. The very advance of technology enabled by such materials has allowed us to see the world from extreme aerial perspectives and to connect humans across vast distances.

    Sime’s studio art, embodied by the works in the exhibition, represents only one component of his multifaceted practice. In 2019, he co-founded Zoma Museum in his hometown of Addis Ababa with curator and anthropologist Meskerem Assegued. Zoma is comprised of a school, a farm, a library, a garden, a cafe, and an exhibition space, merging art with community engagement and sustainability. Dedicated to responsible land use and architecture, Sime and Assegued designed Zoma’s buildings using traditional Ethiopian materials and techniques adapted for contemporary purposes. Their primary building material—wattle and daub—is a mixture of sand, clay, straw, and mud that creates strong, flexible structures. Zoma’s walls, many designed by Sime, are decorated with natural textures and patterns applied in wattle and daub through additive, sculptural processes.

    In Currents 118, Sime presents freestanding sculptures, a new format in his practice. These works follow the artist’s experience at Zoma that integrated sculpture with the natural environment and his most recent project, a large public garden at the Menelik Palace in Addis Ababa. The sculptures consist of broad domes patterned on the surface with amorphous shapes composed of braided colored wire. The hemispherical structures derive from the forms of human-made earthen mounds, such as those of Cahokia in present-day Illinois, roughly eight miles northeast of St. Louis. Cahokia was the largest and most sophisticated ancient Mississippian city and existed from around 1050 to 1350. Sime visited the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in 2019. As earthworks formed for human use as religious sites and building foundations, the mounds are an early example of construction from soil and natural elements related to Sime’s building processes using wattle and daub.

    Like the carvings on the walls of Zoma, his new work addresses the balance between nature and technology, traditions and progress. Sime’s practice instantly resonates with viewers, as he adapts everyday objects into complex artworks that expand on human history. By transforming the discarded into the extraordinary, Sime allows us to see things in new ways. He creates visual representations of the time, labor, and love necessary to connect people to one another within the ever-changing world. Sime asks us to consider slowing down the rapid pace set by planned obsolescence and to embrace new forms of creative possibility that come from community, human interaction, and even silence.

    Tightrope: Noiseless 3, 2019
    Elias Sime, Ethiopian, born 1968
    reclaimed electrical wires on panel
    14 feet 8 inches x 72 inches
    Courtesy Artist and James Cohan, New York 2020.141
    © Elias Sime 2019, image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York

    Currents 118: Elias Sime is curated by Hannah Klemm, associate curator of modern and contemporary art, with Molly Moog, research assistant. Elias Sime, Hannah Klemm, and Molly Moog would like to thank the following for their support and assistance with this project: Meskerem Assegued, Brent Benjamin, David Burnett, Ann Burroughs, Benedetta Castrioto,
    James Cohan, Jon Cournoyer, Jeanette Fausz, Kaitlyn Garbarino, Deanna Griffin, Kelly Howard, Simon Kelly, Sabrina Lovett, Courtney McCarty, Christopher Moreland, Johnny Pelhank, Tim Skornia, Annie Stuart, Adam Taye,
    Amanda Thompson Rundahl,  Lesley Wellman, Amber Withycombe, and James Cohan gallery.

    ELIAS SIME 
    Ethiopian, born 1968
    Addis Ababa University School of Fine Art and Design,
    Ethiopia, 1990

    Works in Exhibition
    Gallery 249 and 250 (East Building)

    Tightrope: Noiseless 3, 2019
    reclaimed electrical wires on panel,
    14 feet 8 inches × 72 inches

    Tightrope: Noiseless 6, 2019
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel,
    73 × 142 1/2 inches

    Tightrope: Noiseless 8, 2019
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel,
    90 × 128 inches

    Untitled 2, 2020
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel,
    155 1/8 × 110 5/8 inches

    Untitled 3, 2020
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel,
    109 7/16 × 94 1/2 inches

    Untitled 4, 2020
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel,
    110 1/4 × 123 1/4 inches

    Untitled 6, 2020
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel,
    136 1/4 × 139 inches

    Tightrope: Eyes and Ears of a Bat (1), 2020
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on wood,
    47 1/4 × 83 1/2 inches

    Tightrope: Eyes and Ears of a Bat (2), 2020
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on wood,
    47 1/4 × 83 1/2 inches

    above artworks are courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York

    Tightrope: Noiseless 1, 2019
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel,
    112 5/8 inches × 14 feet 5 1/4 inches
    Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah,
    purchased with funds from The Phyllis Cannon Wattis
    Endowment Fund

    Tightrope: Noiseless 4, 2019
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel,
    109 × 122 1/2 inches
    Anderson Cooper Collection

    Tightrope: Noiseless 11, 2019
    reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel,
    100 × 79 inches
    Collection of Randy Shull and Hedy Fischer

    Selected Solo Exhibitions and Projects 

    2019–21
    Elias Sime: Tightrope, Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY; Akron Art Museum, OH; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada

    2019
    Elias Sime: NOISELESS, James Cohan, New York, NY

    2017
    Elias Sime: Twisted & Hidden, James Cohan, New York, NY

    2015
    Elias Sime, James Cohan, New York, NY

    2013
    Tightrope, British Council, Goethe-Institut, Italian Cultural Institute, and Alliance Ethio-Française, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

    2012
    Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart, North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks, ND

    2011
    Ants and Ceramicists, British Council, Goethe-Institut, Italian Cultural Institute, and Alliance Ethio-Française, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

    2010
    Oedipus-Rex (artwork for the opera), Sydney Opera House, Australia

    2009
    Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart, Santa Monica Museum of Art, CA

    Oedipus-Rex (artwork for the opera), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA

    2006
    Metamorphosis (public mosaic), sponsored by the European Union and Zoma Contemporary Art Center, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

    Selected Group Exhibitions 

    2020
    Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, OH

    15th Anniversary Exhibition: Where We Now Stand –  In Order to Map the Future, 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan

    Allied with Power: African and African Diaspora Art from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection, Pérez Art Museum Miami, FL

    Home is a Foreign Place: Recent Acquisitions in Context, The Met Breuer, New York, NY

    2019
    Borders, James Cohan, New York, NY

    2018
    I Was Raised on the Internet, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL

    2017–18
    Abstract Minded: Works by Six Contemporary African Artists, N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, Detroit, MI

    Innovative Approaches, Honored Traditions: The Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Five Years, Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY

    THE ART SHOW—Art of the New Millennium in Taguchi Art Collection, The Museum of Modern Art Gunma, Japan

    2017
    Beachcombers, GRIMM, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

    2016
    The Distance of a Day, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel

    2010
    Stitches, The Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, CA

    2009
    Täarät-Täarät, Haunch of Venison, London, England

    2008
    The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

    2008
    Flow, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY

    2006
    Green Flame, New Crowned Hope Festival, Vienna, Austria

    2004
    Dak’Art Biennale 2004, 6th Biennial of Contemporary African Art, Dakar, Senegal

    Selected Public Collections

    Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation, Santa Fe, NM

    Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA

    Des Moines Art Center, IA

    Detroit Institute of Arts, MI

    Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH

    Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

    Norval Foundation, Cape Town, South Africa

    North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC

    Pérez Art Museum, Miami, FL

    Pizzuti Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, OH

    Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY

    Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada

    Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA

Hear Hannah Klemm, associate curator of modern and contemporary art, and Molly Moog, research assistant, discuss Elias Sime's monumental artworks and his artistic practice. Then, use collage to create postcards inspired by Sime's work with Kira Hegemon, associate educator, teacher and student learning.

Scroll back to top