Many artists train themselves through mimicry and adaptation. For Ethiopian Behulum Mengistu, 24, that wasn't feasible; when he was a teenager and budding graffiti artist, his native Amharic alphabet had no script workable for street art. He had to translate it himself. Mengistu's inventiveness and creative enterprise have carried him around the globe — and now to Vermont.
Thanks to a nearly decade-long relationship with Vermont-based actor and activist David Schein, as well as to the Willowell Foundation, Castleton University and the Vermont Folklife Center, Mengistu is currently a cultural ambassador of sorts to the Green Mountain State. In addition to visiting schools statewide, he will offer a public lecture on Tuesday, May 9, at Burlington's Off Center for the Dramatic Arts, discussing his artistic career and the conditions for young visual artists in his country.
Mengistu first met Schein when the former was 15 and a participating art teacher for One Love AIDS/HIV Awareness Theater, the arts program that Schein cofounded in Mengistu's hometown of Awassa, Ethiopia. Today, Mengistu has added a position as managing director of One Love to his growing résumé. He also lays claim to one of very few aikido black belts in eastern Africa.
Mengistu first encountered street art through an American PhD scholar who was passing through One Love's headquarters at an NGO called the Awassa Youth Campus. The scholar's field was hip-hop cultures, and Mengistu speaks of the two forms in a way that indicates their close relationship for him. Indeed, he traveled to the U.S. last month primarily to participate in the 12th annual Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival in Hartford, Conn. While he was there, Mengistu painted a mural at a local skate park.
"Graffiti helps you to express your feelings about society, the economy, the government," he said in a recent interview. "When you do a gallery show," he continued, "it's limited for people to see. Eighty or 90 percent of people in Ethiopia don't go [to galleries]. [With street art], whether you're rich or poor, it doesn't matter; [the work] is in the street."
In 2012, Mengistu showed his work in Ethiopia's first gallery exhibition of graffiti. He described that work as a combination of Ethiopian religious iconography and words in his own Amharic script. "It took me a long time to find my own style as an artist," he said. One of his priorities, he added, is to craft a uniquely Ethiopian take on the genre. That means not alienating his community by replicating American styles, but instead, for example, working with neighbors and business owners to develop a mural.
"I research a lot," Mengistu said. He pointed out that, with 80 tribes making up the greater Ethiopian population, artists need to avoid offending any group through carelessness. "Before you do a mural," he said, "you have to talk to the community."
Promoting social cohesion is what motivates Mengistu's "Share the Love" project. He and his graffiti crew ask citizens and business owners in "rough neighborhoods" of Awassa and Addis Ababa what kind of message they'd like to share through street art. Many, he said, choose words such as "harmony," "love," "unity" or "Ethiopia." Local media are invited to document the resulting mural painting.
What cultural differences has he noticed in the U.S.? "Here there is the opportunity for the kids to develop into anything [they] want," Mengistu offered. "In Ethiopia, you have to create your own opportunities."
Among the challenges he continues to face is a lack of quality materials. The only spray paint Mengistu can get in Ethiopia is ABRO, an industrial paint not meant for artistic use. Another obstacle is the low level of social media use, which makes it hard to get his work seen beyond the street. Even securing walls is an ever-present problem.
Despite the difficulties, Mengistu is nothing if not optimistic and hard-working. He hopes to grow "Share the Love" and has started a T-shirt company to get designs by himself and other young artists out into the world.
"You don't have to have really quality sprays to be a street artist," he said. "Create your own opportunities ... Use your opportunity wisely; sell yourself; practice really hard. If you put your time, courage and mind to something, you can do it."