By Glenda Rice Collins, for The Oklahoman
Published: January 4, 2015
BENTONVILLE, Ark. — “We cannot deny the politics in the clothing we wear,” said Oklahoma City artist/photographer Eyakem Gulilat, who was born in 1976. “Can you imagine a politician without a suit and tie?”
Gulilat, who is Ethiopian-American, was the only artist from Oklahoma selected for the unprecedented, contemporary “State of Art: Discovering American Art Now” exhibition that continues through Jan. 19 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.
In conjunction with the exhibition, Crystal Bridges recently hosted “The Summit: Insights From a Changing America.” Speakers and panelists included former President Bill Clinton, author Deepak Chopra and artist Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In his related October remarks, Clinton emphasized details about power in the arts to overcome the “negative sense of identity” that drives evil, globally, by “the ability to democratize the arts … making it available to more people …to develop their own talents (and) … find a way to celebrate diversity.”
Complimentary admission to Crystal Bridges museum is sponsored by Walmart and Sam’s Club.
In his two chosen 16-by-46-inch “Untitled” archival pigment print triptychs, from the series “Collaborative Self,” photographer Gulilat focuses on attire, identity, shared environments and perceptions, which are often “stronger than truths.”
During a telephone interview, Guililat said that “we’re curious by nature … At their best, images capture a poetic moment and read like a stanza from a poem … spurring the imagination to run wild.”
In “Collaborative Self,” Gulilat allows his series subjects to turn the camera upon him, in turn, as each poses in traditional Ethiopian attire, in a shared landscape environment. He is thus “challenging the perception of space in a global society.”
“Growing up in Kenya, I hated wearing this nicely tailored (native) clothing … for special occasions. I much preferred the jeans and T-shirts, or wearing khakis and feeling more American. … What is cool is determined by what we see on television or in the movies.
“Now (the Ethiopian clothing) becomes another dialogue piece … a common thread, a metaphor. I like to wear it now, because it creates new dialogue. People ask questions about it.
“All my work, I see as narrative pieces. I wanted to show the landscape, as evidence of where this took place. This is important as I explore my own identity,” Gulilat said.
Search for validation
Gulilat said he was influenced by the principles of Stephen R. Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
“That is my favorite book, next to the Bible,” said Gulilat, born in Kenya, the son of Ethiopian missionaries. “I’ve read it several times.”
He now focuses on the complexities of cross-cultural encounters.
“Seek first to understand, and then to be understood,” is one of Covey’s key principles, also used in his professional development training programs.
“We each want to be understood … and known. We want to be validated for who we are. Regarding any social issues, we’re always in search for validation,” Gulilat said.
Part of something big
Gulilat earned his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Oklahoma in 2010. He attributes much of his growth as an artist to the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition, which he calls “a great place for representation of artists statewide.”
Gulilat was named 2011 arts coalition Fellowship Winner, “for past achievement, outstanding vision and future promise,” the same year the Crystal Bridges museum opened.
As the most viewed exhibition in the museum’s three-year history, “State of the Art” has attracted some 127,000 visitors since opening Sept. 11.
“As a new museum in the middle of the country, we have a unique vantage point in which to tell the American story,” said Rod Bigelow, Crystal Bridges executive director. The architecturally dazzling, Moshe Safdie-designed museum has welcomed nearly 1.5 million visitors to date.
Photo provided by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.