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The trash of life is Elias Sime's art

Ethiopian artist draws deeply on his local culture and love of community to tell stories with found objects.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 13, 2009

COMMON TREASURES: 'What is Love?-1' (2007), yarn and bottle cap on canvas.

Courtesy of Bruce Morr/Santa Monica Museum of ARt

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Santa Monica, Calif.

In a tiny corner of the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis, a newly discovered artistic voice is speaking softly but articulately in a show that is being "heard" as far away as Addis Ababa and Vienna. Ethiopian artist, Elias Sime, who works with the humblest of materials – think mud, bottle caps, yarn, and buttons – in his first solo US exhibition, "Elias Sime: Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart" at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA), appears to be a global art star in the making.

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"He is one of the great sacred artists of our time," says art impresario Peter Sellars, who co-curated the show.

"He's incredibly talented," says SMMoA director, Elsa Longhauser, who calls him a "world artist" whose work transcends easy ethnic or geographic labels.

Enter the boutique museum space, which nestles in a converted subway station, and in the words of filmmakers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton ("Little Miss Sunshine"), "you immediately feel the power and love and connection Elias has to his materials and his community." Among the 56 works culled from his 20-year career: a series of meticulously decorated goatskins; large canvases featuring a range of "found" materials such as threads, buttons, and bottle caps in both abstract and realistic designs; a parade of tiny monkeys, frogs, and TV sets made of mud; and carved walking sticks.

The pièce de résistance is a series of elaborately carved thrones, decorated with animal skulls, shells, and carvings. The married duo, Ms. Faris and Mr. Dayton, spent their 20th anniversary filming a minidocumentary that has become the exhibition's Catalog and plays continuously in a viewing room. The film reveals Sime as an artist deeply rooted in his local culture. His passion project is an ambitious house that he is constructing from mud and straw and more than a community's worth of creativity, participation, and everyday objects. The team follows Sime through the local Addis Ababa market – one of the largest bazaars in Africa – as he trolls for artifacts and he's seen with local children who scour the byways of the city to find throwaway treasures for his works.

"He is a local hero," says Faris, who adds that the works he creates show the same love, patience, and connection to community that he embodies in his own life. For instance, she says, the sheer time required for the voluminous amount of needlework in many works radiates a message of care.

"There is no such thing as trash for Elias," says Mr. Sellars, who first championed the artist two years ago when he produced a show in Vienna as part of the city's celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday. "Everything is part of the larger interconnectedness of our world for him." Sime is not a religious artist in a conventional tradition of pious imagery, but rather in the way in which he elevates and cherishes the everyday, Sellars says. "These things all have history, stories, and life which he honors when he uses them."