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The Art of Elias Simé

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It is not often, these days, that I walk into an exhibition space and feel those familiar symptoms--the heart beating harder, faster, the head spinning with awe, the blood running through the veins--by which I recognize that I'm in the presence of genius. And I don't mean just that intellectual brilliance we too often associate with the word in its casual use, but something closer to its profounder meaning, a transcendent connection between humanity and what I can only describe with the word "spirit." It's an expression of greatness, of the awesome potential of the imagination, of the boundless, passionate creativity that can spring from a single, singular human mind.

It's this complex of feelings that overwhelmed me as I stepped across the threshold and into that space of the Santa Monica Museum of Art that is now devoted to the work of the Ethiopian artist Elias Simé, in a show called "Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart," co-curated by the multi-disciplinary arts impresario Peter Sellars and the noted Ethiopian curator and anthropologist Meskerem Assegued. If I can help you step into that space yourself, you'll be able to understand what I mean by "boundless creativity..."

Come with me, then. Your eye will likely be attracted, first, by the hundreds of goatskins, stuffed with straw and decorated with bright, totemic markings, laid out on the floor and arranged in groups that suggest love in all of its myriad forms, whether intimate, sexual even, between two beings, or family love, parents with children, or community groupings whose bond is love of a different, more inclusive kind. It will move on, then, to an arrangement of regal thrones at the center of the gallery floor, each constructed of sensuously carved wood, animal horns, skins and shells, their presence evoking the ritual of kingship, the authority of the seated ruler.

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And thence to the walls, adorned with "paintings" created out of exquisitely crafted thread and buttons, quasi abstract, at once primitive in their magic and intensely contemporary in aesthetic sophistication; and to three-dimensional wall constructions, created from both the detritus of the Addis Ababa city streets and the common materials found in its market stalls.

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Elias Simé is something more than an artist, I'd say, from looking at his work. He's a pack rat, a teacher, a guru, a magician, a medicine man, a community organizer, an orchestrator of the reality that surrounds him where he lives. You know how the most mundane of objects can be conjured by such a person into something so heavily invested with the combined power of labor and craft, vision and intention that it assumes the burning quality of a religious icon, a talisman? To get the full impact of Simé's work, you need to multiply that effect by the thousands.

This is an artist who wastes nothing, works with anything and everything, recycles what others disregard or throw away and invests it with dignity and meaning. From what I read in the accompanying brochure, community is an essential part of his work: family and friends join with him in the creation of his art, and he spreads small wealth and creativity amongst the local children by rewarding them for bringing him the results of their scavenging. He is, in a real and pragmatic sense, a social activist.

Imagine this: the wall of a gallery piled high, at its foot, with bales of straw, on which lie, higgledy-piggledy, hundreds of small, roughly molded individual figures of monkeys and frogs, interspersed, improbably, with the square, stolid shapes of miniature television sets, each one hand-formed out of an earthy mix of mud and straw.

You tell me what this vision "means." Something about the clash of cultures? The lost, mysterious connection between the "primitive" and the "sophisticated"? Earth and sky? Between the animate and the inanimate, nature and artifact? All this and more, wherever your mind can wander with it. For me, though, it's enough to stand there in sheer wonder, with that beating heart, and marvel at the way in which the mind and body simply say, Yes! This is what it is, and could be nothing other. That, friends, quite simply, is the impact of art at its greatest: a recognition, undeniable and true.

Simé is also an architect and constructivist. The exhibition includes a video documentation about the house he is building in Addis Ababa--again, mostly out of mud and straw, but also stone, wood, plant material.

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It is part Antonio Gaudi, the Barcelona eccentric, part Frank Gehry visionary in its sheer playful inventiveness of form and its startling diversity of materials. It is part Simon Rodia, of Watts Towers fame, part Grandma Prisbrey, who built a village out of discarded bottles; and it shares with all self-taught artists an audacious, sometimes bizarre originality untrammeled by conventional rules and expectations.

What we sense above all in Simé's work is the skill and dexterity of the human hand, whose presence is evident everywhere, and its coordination with the human heart. We cannot doubt that all this is a "labor of love," in the truest meaning of that trite expression, nor that it embodies a dedication to the finest qualities of the human spirit: love, labor, yes; and home and hearth, family, connection. It is "organic" in the same sense that the entire body of this artist's work is organic--in its intimate, sensual connection with nature, its indivisibility, its living, breathing, constantly expanding growth, its continuity with everything that surrounds it. It is a beautiful expression of that "oneness" that most of us glimpse only in moments of rare privilege in our lives, but in which this artist seems to dwell.

I know, I know, I rave. I do not believe, however, that I am overstating the case for this truly remarkable, visionary, profoundly human work. Readers who live anywhere within visiting range should not pass up on the opportunity to see this exhibition. It's an opportunity of a kind that will rarely come again.