The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Drawing a Picture of a Stranger in Ethiopia

Author - James Albon


James Albon is an illustrator and writer from Edinburgh. In the summer of 2012 he worked as an Artist-in-Residence in the Bale Mountains National Park, where he amassed over two hundred drawings of his experiences there. On returning to Scotland he developed these drawings into a series of prints, which were recently exhibited in Cambridge and London and awarded the Gwen May prize from the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. A selection of these can be seen on James' website at www.jamesalbon.com.

On the aeroplane I drew a picture of a Norwegian man called Rolf. He was an oil prospector and considered himself a man of the world. He was on his third visit to East Africa with his company. He was extremely tall, with long blonde hair and blue eyes; he suffered even more than I would for turning heads when he walked down a busy Ethiopian street. He conceded that when they recognised a foreigner Ethiopians would always go out of their way to show interest and offer hospitality but being a man of the world he insisted that he would have preferred to blend in.

My work in Ethiopia had begun as a joke which had got wildly out of hand. I had suggested to my sister, who was planning a research trip to the country, that she should take me on as an Artist in Residence. We had laughed, but then this idea seemed to have been mentioned through so many organisations working in the country that at last it had found someone who had taken it seriously. I had been contracted to explore, sketchbook in hand, the places and people around the national park in the hopes of creating a new folio of artwork to show my experiences of Ethiopia.

For some time I lived in a small town on the main road east out of Shashemene called Dinsho. This town boasts every amenity that a small town should: a market, a couple of small hotels, a bar, a church, a mosque, two hairdressers and a kiosk which sells Coca-Cola and cheap digital watches. On the south side of the road, near the headquarters of the national park, was a forest-covered hill. On that hill was a small stone house which I had been given, along with three blankets and a sleeping bag for the cold and rainy nights that I had been completely unprepared for.

I strolled into Dinsho to have lunch at the Hotel Tsehay. It had a small, dark interior with an uneven wooden floor and an ambiguous number of rooms, every one of which smelled of coffee and sawdust. As my eyes adjusted to the dark a gleaming Italian coffee machine could be seen squatting on the bar. Outside was brighter; a good-sized porch was under a tin roof with a mismatched collection of plastic chairs and good-natured customers. I sat on this porch, enjoying being relatively hidden in the small crowd. Earlier, walking down the main street into Dinsho had prompted, as it did every morning, cries of 'Feranji! Feranji!' from passing children who followed me down the street looking for attention with their rudimentary English.

I opened my bag. I took out a sketchbook. I thumbed through the pages which were coming loose and looked over my previous drawings. Hundreds of drawings, many of them made at great speed. There were shadowy figures rushing through markets, eccentric characters drinking beer in Addis Ababa bars, there were forests, mountains, animals, living rooms, and the views from car windows stuck in traffic. Occasionally there would be a page of notes in a spidery hand, surrounding postcards and beer labels.

Two weeks earlier I had been in an airport departure lounge, silently making a drawing of a large blonde woman in socks and sandals. Periodically, she would glance towards me and, with a practiced motion, I would pause, look past her, upwards, over her shoulder, and let my blank eyes wander around the whole room, my mouth hanging slightly open as though simply staring into space. Content that I did not appear to be staring attentively and directly at her she would return to her book, and I would recommence my staring and finish the drawing.

There in Hotel Tsehay, a man was sitting two tables away from me. He was overweight, wearing grubby trainers, and a garment that resembled a fake sports jacket tied by the sleeves over his shoulders. His broad face was topped with thick, dark, curly hair, and like most of the men around me he wore a short, thin beard. Turned three-quarters away from me he watched a line of donkeys stomp up the street, blowing smoke into the air and occasionally swatting up flies with a rolled-up newspaper. He was alone. I opened a blank page and took the cap off a pen. From behind, with my feet propped up on the chair in front of me, I began drawing.

I started with his head and shoulders. I was sitting there in silence, drawing his head and shoulders, before roughly mapping out his bulk in the chair.

Two minutes go by and I feel a tickling sensation on my ear. I glance up to find a stem of green leaves protruding from the mouth of a scrawny, bearded man. He's leaning over my shoulder so close that the leaves brush the side of my face as I turn. The leaf-chewer grins enthusiastically, pointing to my subject and nodding, before patting me on the shoulder and chewing further on the stem of the plant. I return to my drawing but in the time it takes me to turn my head back he seems to have gathered half the people on the porch, his leaves bristling as he excitedly beckons. A few peer over my shoulder for a moment, a few stay at their drinks, but several stay to watch as I work on my drawing. One man rests his arm comfortably round my shoulders.

In a little time I am far enough into the image that they can recognise my subject. I am starting on details of the man's clothes and hair. Noticing the commotion, two men at the table in front of him get up to join the huddle around my book, laughing when they see the drawing. For the first time, my subject glances round to see me as the only feranji surrounded by a crowd of curious Ethiopians, but as soon as our eyes meet he quickly looks away. Some kids come in from the street, greeting the men who stand around me. They look at the drawing, which is approaching completion, and gasp. One of them leaps in front of me, grinning, posing, yelping and pointing to himself then the book. Another darts across the room. By now my subject has looked up at us and away again. The child tugs on the man's forearm. The child grins and beckons. The man turns briefly again, scowling this time, then pulls away from the child and brushes the hand off his arm.

The drawing is close to finished and only some details of the chairs and tables remain. But the boy, having darted back to me, summons his friend and they return to the man. With clear excitement the two of them are urging the man to come and see the drawing. They point to me and chatter enthusiastically at him. The man turns in his chair and looks with a long face of puzzlement at me and the crowd of locals behind. He rises heavily and, with annoyance, swipes at the children with his rolled newspaper and leaves a bank-note on the table before trudging back onto the street. Having closed my book, the crowd slowly disperse.

Back on the street, I start walking home. I pass the hotels, the bar, and the street leading towards the market. At the kiosk, I see again the man I had been drawing, fumbling with more banknotes as he pays for a bottle of cola. He sees me. He turns, and with determination he crosses the street, placing himself in my path. I smile nervously at him and he looks me up and down. He furrows his brows. Worrying that I have offended him beyond words, I prepare myself to apologise and make excuses in my terribly limited Amharic. Not all Ethiopians take well to drawings. Not all Ethiopians take well to foreigners at all.

He opens his mouth. He speaks in English. He has a thick New Jersey accent. He tugs at the jacket tied over his shoulders and says 'God, you must be the first white guy I've seen in days. You know when the next bus back to Shashemene is?'

I laugh and say there will be one later on that afternoon. He starts to tell me an anecdote about his trip, about getting lost on the way to the southern town of Delo Mena, and about how daunting he has found the country. 'These kids eh?' he says, 'cannot get a break.' He can speak enough Amharic to explain that he is visiting his grandparents in Addis, but not enough to explain that he is not from Addis, and only just enough to explain that he only speaks English. I tell him not to be surprised if the buses are late around here, and at least people will not shout feranji! at him in the street. He says he is only just getting used to the buses. I wish him good luck and as we part he says 'say, what were you drawing in that book there earlier?'

Dinsho Main Street, Reduction linocut
Dinsho Main Street
Reduction linocut, 70cm x 30cm
© James Albon

First Published in News File Summer 2013

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