When a shortage of oil paints hit Addis Ababa in 2015, Ethiopian artist Minas Kahsay turned to the same strength that always gets him through hard times: his creativity. With a pair of scissors and household magazines, the self-taught Kahsay launched into a new medium of paper mosaic art. In his works, Kahsay depicts portraits with traditional Ethiopian geometric patterns. He both celebrates the beauty and elegance of Ethiopian culture while drawing awareness to the conflicts that grip the country through more recent digital artworks he plans to release as NFTs, with a portion of the proceeds dedicated to victims of war.
Below, Kahsay tells Art Guide about when he decided to pursue the arts full-time, how he continually refines his technique, and the joy and challenges of making art. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
How did you discover your medium of paper mosaic art?
The shortage of oil paints on the market in Ethiopia happened around 2015. Ethiopia is a land-locked country, and it takes a lot of effort to get your hands on any kind of product, to begin with. And suddenly, the people who used to provide us artists with the necessary art materials told us that there are no oil paints coming to their store, and that was it — no explanation provided for the cause.
They only said, “These things happen all the time.” So I had to look for alternative means to create my artworks. Luckily, I had a lot of magazines lying around at home, so I decided to experiment and use those magazines as an input or raw materials to create my artworks. My work evolved drastically. When I first started with paper mosaic, I understood there was a lot of potential to be explored with the medium, and I proved myself right by repeatedly creating multiple artworks and improving my techniques gradually.
How do you choose your subjects?
I grew up in Ethiopia watching these geometric patterns all over the place, especially in traditional Ethiopian clothes, which both men and women wear, and traditional baskets which most Ethiopians use to decorate their houses with, including my parents’ house where I grew up. So, it is only natural to be inspired by them since I literally grew up surrounded by them.
The women in my artworks are generated from my imagination, but I am sure my imagination is influenced by the beautiful Ethiopian women whom I grew up admiring. I choose my subjects to represent the culture of Ethiopia and the elegance of its women. And when people see my artworks, I hope they gain insight of what Ethiopia looks like through the eyes of its’ artists.
What subjects have been inspiring you lately?
The subject that is fascinating me the most right now is creating artworks that represent the genocide and civil war that has been going on in my country for more than a year now and to let the rest of the world know about what is actually going on in the besieged northern region of Ethiopia called Tigray.
I previously did abstract geometrics on my laptop, and since it is digital work, there was no reception for such artworks in Ethiopia at that time, so I put most of my time and effort on my paper mosaic artworks. Some of my latest works are digital paintings which I am planning to release as NFTs and designate some of the income to the victims of the war. In that way, the rest of the world would understand what is really happening in Ethiopia.
Tell me about growing up in Addis Ababa.
Addis Ababa is a metropolitan city where you can find diversity in many forms. It is considered the capital of Africa since the African Union is based here. The weather rarely exceeds 28 degrees celsius and seldom descends under 12 degrees celsius, so it is an ideal environment to live in. Many cultural events are held in the city. The people are very hospitable to visitors and foreigners. Things used to be even more interesting and vibrant when I was growing up. Since Ethiopia is under an ongoing civil war, there is a fracture between the society on ethnic lines, so honestly speaking, this is the worst time for the city and the country as a whole.
When did you decide to pursue the arts full-time?
I started making art as long as I can remember.
After graduating from Addis Ababa University, I spent a year looking for a job (jobs are hard to find here). Then I get a job as a junior human resources officer in a company called Agency for Government Houses. I worked there for 2 years there and I applied for a job in a Canadian-based NGO called DOT Ethiopia and worked for a year as a community facilitator.
The moment I knew for sure that I needed to be a full-time artist is immediately after getting my first job. I knew that life was not for me, and I did not have time to create my artwork. I could not create in my spare time too, because I was already exhausted from my day job. I felt like my soul was being crushed from all sides; I felt lost, and to make matters worse, time was passing by without me creating any substantial artwork which I was thinking about doing growing up. I had a lot of ideas to create, and I was not able to do one of them.
But I was also aware that I needed to provide for myself financially and had to continue working. That is why I worked for 2 years while I prepared in advance for my ultimate strike of becoming a full-time artist. The second NGO job became a transition for me because the job was for a fixed one-year contract and it paid relatively well, so it gave me a chance to prepare and save a little bit of money. After the one-year project ended, I started my life as a full-time artist. Even though I hated my time at both companies, i actually won awards from both. I was chosen as employee of the year from the first company, and I won a social enterprise workshop competition from the second company.
What is your motto?
Strive to make your latest work your best-ever work.
Tell us about your creative process. What do you hope audiences take from your work?
I feel most creative when I am by myself, surrounded by nature. I boost my creativity and push through creative blocks by continuously sketching and doodling whatever is in my mind. And ironically enough, my creativity could also be aroused when I am not actively creating for a while and suddenly get inspired by something beautiful I encounter when I go out and about in Addis Ababa.
Then I return home and contemplate on how I can combine and create an ideal Ethiopian beauty from what I saw earlier. The environment I create in is in my studio by myself listening to different genres of music, loads and loads of magazines by my side, references of my past works nearby, pencils, pens, ruler, and scissors on hand.
I go through the magazines I have at home and rip out all the colorful pages which inspire me. Then, I will start drawing a portrait of a woman from my imagination and use minimal references from different photographs. I include the geometric patterns which I saw on the traditional dresses of the women I encountered earlier. This combination simply represents both the beauty of Ethiopian women and its culture within a harmony created by the combination of both.
I hope audiences feel and see the beauty I saw and imagined when they see my works. When people see my artworks, I hope they gain insight of what Ethiopia looks like through the eyes of its artists.
See more of Minas Khasay’s work on Artrepreneur.