St. Moritz Art Film Festival


Conversation: Theo Eshetu & Ewa Hess

Theo Eshetu was born in London and grew up in Addis Ababa, Dakar, and Belgrade, before settling in Rome, where he received his first camera aged 10. Trained in London, he became a photographer of rock stars during the 1970s. 

Drawn into the worlds of David Bowie and Lindsay Kemp, Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, Eshetu collaborated with a number of artists before concentrating on the art of video. His focus on video’s expressive potential and his exploration of African cultures led to experimentation—ritualistic, raw, and unpolished—outside the established art world of the 1980s. He probed the dialectic between rational and instinctual in his series Till Death Us Do Part, inspired by the contradictions inherent in Leni Riefenstahl’s celebration of her African Nuba subjects. This pioneering video-wall installation appeared alongside works by Warhol, Nam June Paik, Joseph Beuys, and others at the International Art Show for the End of World Hunger.

Eshetu explores perception, culture, and notions of the sacred through electronic time-based media and optical devices and effects. He draws from anthropology, art history, scientific research, and religion—Catholic, African, Muslim, Buddhist—to explore clashes and harmonies of human subjectivity between world cultures in the global context. Though essentially conceptual, Eshetu’s work is always grounded in compelling aesthetic components, often achieved through fractal repetition, such as through kaleidoscopic mirroring, multi-screen projections, or mosaic-like patterning of images. Several works concentrate on video’s formal components of time and light.

Throughout the 1990s, Eshetu focused on forging a hybrid language to merge practices of video art and documentary filmmaking. Traveling Light (1992), his biographical portrait of Lindsay Kemp, received first prize at the Berlin Video Festival, and was frequently the only video accepted in prestigious film festivals. His Blood Is Not Fresh Water (1997), recipient of several awards, is at once a portrait of his Ethiopian grandfather, a travelogue/essay, and a journey of self-discovery. Mass Memory (1995) was presented at the Venice Film Festival as an homage to commemorate Federico Fellini’s passing.

Among several international awards, Eshetu was recently Artist-in-Residence at Tarabya Cultural Academy, Turkey where he completed aspects of production for Atlas Fractured, (2017), which was featured at Documenta 14, Athens and Kassel. In 2012, he was Artist-in-Residence at the DAAD program in Berlin, where he exhibited The Return of the Axum Obelisk at DAADgalerie in 2014. His work has appeared at The New Museum, NY; New York African Film Festival; DIA Foundation’s Electronic Arts Intermix, NY; Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography at the International Centre for Photography, NY; BAM Cinematheque, NY; Brooklyn Museum of Art; Baltimore Museum of Art; Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Africa Remix at The Hayward Gallery, London; the Venice Film Festival; Roma Film Festival, Museum of Modern Art in Rome; Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Nice; UNESCO headquarters in Paris; the Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin.