It was a cold and windy night. Th painter’s spouse was sitting on a couch, all bundled up and cosy under a blanket - a blanket commonly referred to in Ethiopia as the Debre Berhan berd libs (a tribute to the highland and notoriously cold region of Debre Berhan, where the iconic blankets are manufactured). The artist was starring at his wife. He was caught by feelings of joy and sympathy. One was to serve her with a hot cup of tea; and the other was a profound urge to begin painting.
Beyond the spontaneous and temporal feeling, artist Zelalem recalls with gratitude that night's everlasting inspiration. He first started off with the colorful, decorative and geometric features of the Debre Berhan blanket. This led him on a path of discovery for consecutive, creative and more intricate features - he was able to move into the metaphor that the berd libs represents within the culture of many Ethiopian communities - its nod towards the "hidden" lives of societies - that this iconic warm overlay does not only protect from cold, but covers and in a sense hides, societal issues and phenomenon of controversy from anyone outside one's home. The decorative patterns of the blanket embody covert elements of the surroundings Zelalem grew up in. The berd libs gave comfort and warmth but also shaded one's life from harsh opinions and judgments of the outside world - perceived or real.
The forty one year old artist Zelalem Gizaw was born and brought up in a the societal context of Addis Ababa. His life and artistic personality was shaped by life in the city neighborhoods of Gullele, Piazza, Arat Killo, Sebategna and Abinet. All parts of the city that effortlessly merge elements of the progressive populous, the vibrant developing city cocooned within its very much traditional and religious societies, with a backdrop of an amalgamated old and new architecture. Zelalem’s father and mother were integral in his decision to pursue art. He studied art in the then Alle FellegeSelam School of Fine Arts and Design, graduating in painting in 1998 - and then once again in 2011 (he went back to this very same school, which was renamed to the Addis Ababa University Alle School of Fine arts, to sharpen his talents). His graduation project was supervised by the prominent Ethiopian artist Mezgebu Tesema.
“I believe that I’m lucky. When I was a student, I had a chance to meet great artists and teachers like Tadesse Mesfin, Tadesse Gizaw, Tadesse Mameicho, Mezgebu Tesema, Tadesse Belayneh. For the young of the time like me, it was a wonderful opportunity. Since we didn’t often sell our artworks, we were able to enhance our skills. That was an invaluable experience", says Zelalem.
Presently, apart from being a studio artist, Zelalem is a curator at the Taitu International Art Center. He has shown his works in fifteen group exhibitions. In 2014, he put on his very first solo show, Apparent and Hidden, where he exhibited his Debre Berhan berd libs themed paintings.