If you walk through the bowels of the Jonathan Edwards College basement, maneuvering through the ping-pong tables of the buttery, passing the chaos of the gym and the thumping of the laundry room, a pleasant, peaceful surprise awaits.
The narrow, underground hallway opens up into a brightly lit gallery that currently displays the work of JE freshman Tsedenya Simmie. Her photography exhibition, “Textures of Life: Glimpses of Addis Ababa,” celebrates the opposing textures that coexist in her hometown of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. While the show’s description panel suggests that these textures exist on a purely literal level (think the contrast between smooth and grainy), the artist explained to me that she actually intended the message to run much deeper. That is, her photos simultaneously examine contrasts in culture, ethnicity and time.
Although I am loath to admit it, before visiting the exhibition I knew absolutely nothing about Addis Ababa. I didn’t know that it has long been considered Africa’s diplomatic capital. I didn’t know that it’s one of the most populated cities on the continent. I didn’t know that, even though Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, there are over 80 other languages spoken within Addis Ababa. I didn’t know anything about this place that the artist considers “the capital of Africa.”
It was, of course, Simmie’s exhibition, not these fun facts, that brought the city to life. Not only is her show intended to provide Yalies like me with a better understanding of her hometown, but it also hopes to reveal the beauty that can and does exist in a country known for its extreme poverty. Simmie succeeds on both fronts.
The first piece that struck me was a simple black-and-white photograph of a woman’s back. The subject walks away from the camera, purse tucked neatly under her arm, clean white shawl fluttering in the wind. I immediately noticed a contrast between the woman’s affluent appearance and the barren, seemingly destitute land that surrounded her. Economic diversity, I concluded, was the specific “texture of life” that the piece was alluding to.
I was mistaken. The artist later explained to me that the shawl wasn’t a fashionable item denoting wealth after all. Rather, this nettle shawl is meant to be worn to church. For Simmie, while the shawl represented history, the purse embodied modernity, and this contrast between old and new was the intended “texture” at the heart of the photograph.
Therein lies the beauty of the show’s theme: Contrasting textures, as Simmie herself explained, are sewn into the very fibers of the world we live in. Although they are so subtle that we might not consider them on a day-to-day basis, they exist all over the place and in all forms. “What’s interesting is not just that these different textures exist, but that they exist side-by-side,” the artist explains.
Many photos in the show are tightly shot portraits, which have been printed in black and white. Photographs that depict broader landscapes, however, are generally in color. The strategy here allows Simmie to accentuate either content or style. When looking at the achromatic photos, I found myself focusing on the content of the photograph, on the woman’s wrinkles, the boy’s eager, luminous eyes; I couldn’t be distracted by color because there was none. In the other photos, I was captivated by the vibrant hues of the trees, of the umbrellas, of the buildings, and in these color contrasts I also found textures of life.
Given the quality of her photographs and the depth of her message, one might assume that Simmie has been an accomplished photographer for some time now. I was both surprised and humbled to learn that Simmie is actually a self-taught photographer who began taking pictures only this summer. While she has a background in new media (which explains her photographs that are part black-and-white and part color), photography was entirely new to her. In fact, she explained that in Addis Ababa photography is not a commonplace form of art as it is in America. If people do take pictures, Simmie explains, it’s on their smartphones, not on a high-quality camera.
Simmie has recently joined the Yale Photography Society, which organizes photography excursions around New York and Boston. On these trips, Simmie plans to explore the textures of life in other contexts and to present them again around Yale. She told me she’s “excited to see where it takes me” — I for one am also excited to visit her next show and see where she’s going.