In search of body and soul with Theo Eshetu

I will never forget the first time I got lost in Anima Mundi, a video installation by Theo Eshetu, which was shown at Pioneer Works at the booth for Axis Gallery, in Brooklyn (2015). All of a sudden, my face literally got sucked into a 3-D glass-mirror-box, which exploded into a fractured globe of zapping sounds and images. There I was, transfixed on what looked like an eternal space odyssey, where the soul of the universe was bursting before my eyes.

Theo Eshetu. Anima Mundi, 2014 (excerpt). Multimedia and Video Installation. Duration 24:05.
Courtesy of the Artist and Axis Gallery, NY & NJ.

London-born-Ethiopian video artist Theo Eshetu probes the expressive potential of video art. At SPRING/BREAK Art Show’s ⌘COPY⌘PASTE edition, where I was one of the curators, I placed Anima Mundi in a dark, narrow stairwell. Hundreds of people continually stopped to peer into the framed fluorescent light box-like installation. I kept wondering if this work had left me feeling as though we had just been catapulted into a new sensory realm, where meaning, perception and authenticity took on new forms. Or, if there was a sense in which this was all déjà vu, as though we had just watched a mash-up of another psychedelic music video. In any case, Anima Mundi did help me get to the core of our multiple selves, by constantly disrupting time, space and maybe even, how we perceived the world.  It was only after the exhibition, that I finally met Theo Eshetu while I was in Berlin, in April. At first, it actually felt quite awkward and nerve-racking. We’d been hunched up on the floor for a few hours, sitting cross-legged and cautiously eyeing one another’s gestures over some Thai food. Eventually, we did delve deeper into a conversation on the origins of this one work, and, where the ‘soul’ of the universe might reside. It was humbling to be sitting in front of someone who had meticulously dedicated so much of his long career, honing an unusual art practice such as Theo’s, which is only just beginning to make a remarkable comeback. So it comes as no surprise that apart from SPRING BREAK, since early March 2016, Theo’s phenomenal videos, including Brave New World and Trip to Mount Zugualla, have also been shown at the LACMA, EVA International, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair and, the Dak’Art Biennial.

Theo Eshetu. Wild Trees, 2005. Installation Still. Photographic Print. 35 x 230 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Axis Gallery, NY & NJ.

Here’s what Theo had to say about Anima Mundi in particular, and Trip to Mount Zugualla in general, in terms of how those can help us unravel the meaning and function of soul, perception, ritual and, our disparate identities.

Mebrak Tareke | What made you decide to use the mirror box effect, which has given your video and multimedia installation for Anima Mundi, its distinctly 3-D form?

Theo Eshetu | I had been making kaleidoscopes with video effects and video walls, so I wanted to try and make one using mirrors. At an exhibition in Rome[i], there was a room at my disposal, and one TV set – there was no budget for more video equipment. At the time, this was quite common for museums accustomed to exhibiting paintings and sculptures. They did however have a team of carpenters and architects, and so we talked of various ways to make the images reflect off the mirrors. The initial idea was to make a hallway of glass and mirrors, like in the movie The Lady of Shanghai; this was soon abandoned. It was by looking at the way my image repeated itself on a three-way bathroom mirror that we attempted to create a box that would do the same thing. Through trial and error, we eventually got the kaleidoscope effect I was looking for.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your influences?

At the time, I was looking at the writings of Anthanasius Kircher very closely and his experiments with optics. I had also seen other artists experimenting with mirrors, but my interest lay in making a direct reference to the tradition of painting, or at least to the experiments of modernists that were seeking to go beyond traditional painting. I wanted to give the illusion of it being a painting on a flat surface, and so I created an artificial wall and hung a picture frame so that the video could be seen through a peephole. This was originally done for an installation called Brave New World, of which Anima Mundi is a more recent development.

Theo Eshetu. Anima Mundi, 2014. Still. Multimedia and Video Installation. Duration 24:05.
Courtesy of the Artist and Axis Gallery, NY & NJ.

When gathering and putting together the score and footage for Anima Mundi, were you thinking more of sequence or spontaneity?

Well both, really. On the one hand, assembling the images was done intuitively but at the same time, there was a desire for narrative, to suggest an inner journey. The sequence of images suggests a destination but it is a journey that leads nowhere or, as a Buddhist would say, leads to the Void.

Apart from there being a void, how else would you describe this inner journey, the stories that are being told along the way?

The way I see it, the void is not just emptiness but it’s a place of balance where everything feels as though it is in equilibrium. The images are of bodies but in reality, they all allude to the fact that the body, in terms of flesh and blood, is never really present. Video, no matter how real it seems, is ultimately just an image with all the ambiguities that that implies. Several scenes show dancers dancing to the wrong music, somehow emphasizing the spirit that animates them. The journey itself happens through a range of sensations, some positive and uplifting and others, dark and mysterious.  I was playing with the power of video to capture attention and the innate desire to construct a story or meaning when we see a sequence. It is as much a journey into the ephemeral qualities of the televised image as it is a journey into the ephemeral qualities of the physical body. The idea being, that no matter how many images of bodies we see, they are never really there as flesh but mere illusions. We see that constantly in the media where we are shown often tragic images of bodies that make us consider the political and moral implications of the image to satisfy any given agenda.

Anima Mundi has this enigmatic way of drawing most people into such a profound, soulful experience of sound and video. What does ‘soul’ mean to you and your practice?

Soul is probably an outdated word but I like to use it in the way one might use the term soul music. For an artist, particularly for a video artist, the immaterial qualities of images are its essence. So the word soul refers to both the essence of a person, and the essence of the body of images we see on television.

Why is the immaterial or what could be described as the spiritual, the essence of video? Is this where the soul of the universe resides?

In a way yes, though the immaterial and the spiritual are different things. The medium of video is essentially immaterial. The image is just a dot of light that travels the screen to give us an illusion of an image. The image is not actually there, but it is constructed in our imagination. Our understanding of the world is influenced both by what we experience in daily life, and what we have seen on TV or on the computer screen. In that sense, the essence of what we understand resides in that immaterial image. You know how people that have never been to Africa believe they know Africa because they have seen it on TV, but when they actually go they are surprised that it’s different from what they imagined?

Yes, of course, I see what you mean. There’s also a real sense in which this particular work makes us question how we perceive ourselves in the world.

I think that the way we perceive others and ourselves is one of the key themes of our time, especially in light of so many images in the media feeding our imagination with images of elsewhere. I have always been fascinated by the discrepancy between our experience of reality and the way it’s presented on television. This is particularly relevant when we consider how much the televised image contributes to our understanding of the world around us. There is something not altogether convincing about the way the media presents the world and I think that through a more personal, experiential approach to video-making we can understand the contradictions involved better; namely that no matter how real and objective the images appear to us, they are always, in some way, subjective reconstructions.


Theo’s works, which are deeply aesthetic and prone to acts of ritual, are informed largely by fractal repetition, through kaleidoscopic mirroring, and multi-screen projections. He uses this to explore how electronic media shapes human identity and, perception. So, in the second half of this interview we talked a little bit about Theo’s innermost thoughts on ritual and identity, in particular.

With that in mind, can you tell me why ritual is so relevant to your work? There’s something quite Holy about Anima Mundi. It reminds me of a glass shrine where you might go and listen to solemn hymns over and over again, and find solace.

I used the idea of rituals when I began making videos as a way of learning, beyond academia or theory. The act of filming and editing as a ritualistic gesture as well as using themes from anthropology were a way to get to the heart of video-making. All rituals seem to be a way to give access to understanding what cannot be fully understood by reason alone.

Theo Eshetu. Anima Mundi, 2014 (excerpt). Multimedia and Video Installation. Duration 24:05.
Courtesy of the Artist and Axis Gallery, NY & NJ.

Let’s step back in time to your own personal history. You’ve lived in Ethiopia, Senegal, and Italy. How far does place continue to inform your practice as a video artist?

In a way, having grown up in so many different countries detaches me from having a nationalistic perspective. What appears to be true in say Europe is not the same as it would be in Africa. This is not simply about the distinction of locations and social realities, but more rooted in the way we are educated to perceive our environment and ourselves. The continued effects of colonialism continue to affect our perception, as expressed in the writings of Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, which have become if anything, even more complex in the wake of mass migration and, the proliferation of social networks. Displacement has been felt/experienced by many people. The ways in which this can be represented in art can help us look beyond the rhetoric of how these issues are treated in the media.

What more did making Trip to Mount Zugualla, which is set in the outskirts of Addis during a religious ceremony, reveal about the fractures of ritual and identity, especially in terms of your perception of Ethiopia?

Trip to Mount Zugualla is the reconstruction of a lost memory. A return to the place I had seen only in an old picture in our family album. I guess the video shows the fractures of my own Ethiopian identity and it is an attempt to stick it back together. I chose it because it was a place I had visited as a child, I have the picture of a picnic with my parents to prove it, but in fact, I don’t have any recollection of ever having been there.

Theo Eshetu. Trip to Mount Zugualla, 2005 (excerpt). 3 Channel Video Installation. Duration. 7:10 minutes.
Courtesy of the Artist and Axis Gallery NY & NJ.

How far is the hybrid nature of your video work, which is often fragmented and kaleidoscopic, a true likeness of your own sense of self?

There is a tendency not to accept the chaos within and a desire to find reasons and forms of classification that help us understand ourselves. I would say that we all have some degree of hybridity within us. If we are truly free. Doubt is just a part of life, unless of course you subscribe to a particular religion or a national perspective. But even then, I would argue that we are often torn between positions and, conflicting ideas. There is a perennial dialogue between the way one sees oneself and the relationship one has with others. I would like to think that the fragmented kaleidoscope is a true likeness of my sense of self but I must admit that everyone else probably feels this way. Don’t they?

Yes, of course, I know I certainly do.

Well that makes two of us, so we are not alone!

Video art and parody/pastiche are becoming more prolific on cyberspace today. How far did this affect the making of Anima Mundi in particular, as one of your more recent works?

There is a constant relationship between art and parody. After all, art is not nature, it’s not the way the world really is, but in a way, a goofy imitation of it. It is a way of looking at our tragic condition with a smile or a way to break down assumptions about what might be considered correct.  What I find more interesting and maybe even disconcerting, is how real life is affected by the illusionary world of images.

TTheo Eshetu. Anima Mundi, 2014. Still. Multimedia and Video Installation. Duration 24:05.
Courtesy of the Artist and Axis Gallery, NY & NJ.

Tell us a little bit more about the disconcerting aspect of how images affect real life, what this means for the essence of who we are.

I think it’s the fact that images seem so real to us, especially when we watch a video, that we can easily be led to believe that’s the way reality actually is. It’s often very difficult to distinguish between the two. Two examples from Trip to Mount Zugualla: a woman went into a trance and I filmed her from a certain distance, when people saw that I didn’t approach her to get a better shot, they carried her towards me so I could get a close up. My very presence as a photographer influenced the reality of the event. Another subtler example is the way people’s expressions or their mood changes when they realize that they are being photographed. But this idea is not exclusive to photography. It reveals an interest in the relationship between who we are and how we might appear.

Theo Eshetu. Trip to Mount Zugualla, 2005 (excerpt). 3 Channel Video Installation. Duration. 7:10 minutes.
Courtesy of the Artist and Axis Gallery NY & NJ.


This last sentence made me think a lot about the outsider’s ‘gaze’, how the future of how we see ourselves might shift through the medium of video. And so, I asked Theo, and here’s what he had to say:

MT: The history of video art, has been, at best, myopic and ‘Eurocentric’. As someone who’s broken that mould, especially in Anima Mundi, which embodies, the oneness of humankind, how would you like the future of video art to look and sound?

TE: I have consciously tried to break free from this myopic and Eurocentric assumption ever since I began making videos. I guess, my own, ‘multi-ethnic’ background also influences me. In all fairness, the notion of a Eurocentric perspective of oneness was imagined by a multitude of conflicting European nations as they were in the process of redefining the world and beginning to look at land/territory outside Europe. They were unaware of the myopic character of this vision, and didn’t question their disdain for non-European cultures. This however, proved to be a non-viable understanding, as the damaging and inhumane consequences of genocide, colonialism and world wars have shown. Since then, a multitude of voices from diverse cultures have contributed to dismantling this thought as something central and valid. Even though, to a large extent, this still prevails, the heart of ‘Eurocentric’ thought is being extended to embrace a multitude of perspectives. I’m not sure what videos will look like in the future but as long as they are honest expressions of the self, something interesting will happen.

Theo Eshetu. Procession, 2005. Installation Still. Photographic Print. 35 x 230 cm.
Courtesy of the Artist and Axis Gallery, NY & NJ.


Theo Eshetu (b. 1958, London, UK) lives and works in Berlin. After training in photography in London, Eshetu went on to become a pioneer in video art during the 1980s. His work explores the tension between photography, documentary filmmaking, and the aesthetics of video. This has made Eshetu a distinguished artist and a filmmaker. He was also one of the first artists to employ video-wall installations. Eshetu frequently splits and mirrors moving images to create a kaleidoscopic effect. Exploring themes and imagery from anthropology, art history, scientific research, and religious iconography, his work redefines the ways in which electronic media shapes identity and perception. World cultures, particularly the relationship between African and European cultures, often inform Eshetu’s work. Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, his works were shown at major video art festivals, receiving awards in Berlin, Milan and Locarno.

Eshetu’s solo shows include: Brave New World at the Museum of African Art, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC (2010) and the Baltimore Museum of Art (2006); and the multiscreen video installation ‘The Return of the Axum Obelisk’ at UNESCO headquarters, Paris (2009), the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (2010), DAAD Galerie, Berlin (2014) and the American Academy in Rome (2015).

Eshetu’s works have also been presented at: 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (2015 & 2016), Dak’Art Biennial (2016), LACMA (2016/2017), SPRING/BREAK Art Show (2016), EVA International (2016), the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle (2015), the Göteborg Biennial (2015), the Kochi Biennale (2014), the 54th Venice Biennal (2011), the Sharjah Biennial (2011), The Tropics (2009, curated by Alfons Hug) and as part of Snap Judgements (2006, curated by Okwui Enwezor).


[i] 1999. Brave New World, at MACRO Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome.

All images courtesy of the artist and Axis Gallery NY & NJ. All rights reserved.

Ethiopia | Doing our part to combat immappancy

Interviewed by Mebrak Tareke.

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