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Henok Melkamzer, Untitled, 2023. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo: Shanavas Jamaluddin


‘The key to reading telsem,’ says Henok Melkamzer, ‘is to begin from the centre— the eyes are at the centre—and move outwards. And each vine begins with a word or spiritual concept to depict the complex relationship between colour and the alphabetical form of telsem language.’

Drawing from astrology, religion and spirituality, the Ethiopian art form of telsem interweaves symbols, drawings and texts imbued with spiritual and philosophical significance. Shaped throughout the ages by the sociopolitical and cultural histories of Ethiopia, telsem—with its ancient inspirations and modern idioms—is used to address critical problems in the contemporary world such as climate disasters, war and poverty.

Despite the fact that it continues to be practised, telsem is often characterised as ‘healing art’ or ‘talisman art’ within western frameworks, a perspective that excludes it from many discussions of modernism. Henok Melkamzer: Telsem Symbols and Imagery, curated by scholar Elizabeth Giorgis, challenges such a one-dimensional understanding of modernism and offers us a rare insight into one of Ethiopia’s most compelling modernist art practices through the work of Henok Melkamzer.

More than 100 canvases are on view as part of Henok’s largest solo exhibition to date. Audiences can see a wide array of paintings, filled with dense, multicoloured patterns of vines, symbols, words and numbers. These visually stunning combinations are made using acrylic and canvas as well as traditional natural pigments. Henok’s practice provides the public with the opportunity to experience the many manifestations of telsem in current times.

Organised by Sharjah Art Foundation, in collaboration with The Africa Institute, Sharjah, and Sharjah Museums Authority, the exhibition is curated by Elizabeth Giorgis, Associate Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism, The Africa Institute, with Amal Al Ali, Curatorial Assistant of Sharjah Art Foundation.