There are some things to forgive in the first U.S. survey of work by Ethiopian artist Elias Sime, like Peter Sellars dominating Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ otherwise interesting documentary about Sime’s sculpted home, or the fact that one of the artist’s most amazing pieces, a horde of small figures roughly formed from mud and straw, gets shoved to the back of a crowded show. But the drawbacks stemming from Sellars and co-curator Meskerem Assegued’s difficulty in curbing their enthusiasm are outweighed by the art that inspired them.
Sime was born in a hustle-bustle district revolving around a train station and market in Addis Ababa, and grew up in a period when the stature of artists and artisans was on the rise in Ethiopia. He studied art and design during the Derg era of Stalinist-style rule, receiving academic training as part of a generation of would-be artists and designers in service of the state that collapsed not long after he finished school.
His art shows the influences of his varied training and experience, and also reveals a smart cultural promiscuity combined with ingenuity and a natural curiosity about things and materials. The work on view here varies from portraits incorporating both classical and modernist conventions, and made of cast-off cloth and other materials; to similarly collaged narrative and landscape scenes that verge on pure abstraction; to hand-hewn thrones of wood and leather incorporating horns and bones. Among the most compelling, humorous and disturbing of his works are a herd of stuffed goatskins, some of them with hooves still attached, seemingly at states of play and rest throughout the space.
Many viewers will miss poetic clues that would ring clearly in their country of origin, such as the fact that the shirt worn by a young man in one of Sime’s portraits is made of torn bits from uniforms worn by minions in the Derg government; but much of what’s here manages to resonate on a more universal, human level. Enthusiasm is hard to curb.
Elias Sime’s thrones and masks are featured in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s final Los Angeles Philharmonic performance, directed by Peter Sellars, April 16-19, laphil.com.
Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station G1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica; Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m., through April 18. (310) 586-6488 or www.smmoa.org.