Artist uses graffiti to bring youth together on important issues
by Emily Blake
May 16, 2017 | 2179 views | 0 0 comments | 97 97 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Behulum Mengistu
Behulum Mengistu, right, address students at Twin Valley Middle High School while art teacher Meghan Rigali listens.
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WHITINGHAM- In his home country of Ethiopia, graffiti artist Behulum Mengistu uses art in a variety of ways: to engage the youth in his community, spread awareness of important issues, bring communities together, and promote cross-cultural collaboration. Mengistu is currently in the United States for three months, a trip that started at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, for its International Hip-Hop Festival, which Mengistu attended as a presenter. The rest of his time in the United States is being spent mostly in Vermont where he is collaborating with other artists and spreading awareness about the work he does in Ethiopia. Mengistu recently worked with art educator Meghan Rigali and her students at Twin Valley Middle High School.

Rigali met Mengistu in Ethiopia when she traveled there on a program through Castleton University, the Willowell Foundation, and the Vermont Folklife Center. As part of a team of five interdisciplinary artist educators, Rigali collaborated with Mengistu and Action for Youth and Community Change (AYCC), an NGO based in Mengistu’s hometown of Hawassa.

AYCC “promotes positive social change in Ethiopia by engaging and educating youth” through circus arts, gymnastics, dance, theater, music, and visual art. Mengistu was introduced to AYCC when he was 13 years old and he has been involved ever since. Along with developing his career as an artist, AYCC was also where Mengistu discovered his passion for the Japanese martial art aikido. Hawassa was the first place in east Africa where aikido was taught and home to the first dojo for aikido training. Mengistu was one the first students in east Africa to get a black belt in this martial art. Mengistu has now been practicing aikido for almost 11 years and continues to devote much of his time to his training.

One Love Theater, which Mengistu has been managing for about 1 ½ years, is a signature program of AYCC. It is made up of mostly middle and high school students and uses dance, gymnastics, theater, and circus arts to promote awareness of gender equality, HIV/AIDS, and global warming. Students train after school, and then spend four or five days every year touring villages and markets around southern Ethiopia with a 30-40-minute program meant to educate audiences about these issues.

“We’ll call the people who are in the market and everyone will gather there,” Mengistu said. “We’ll have a mattress for the kids to start doing gymnastics. The people will be interested to see the show, and while they’re seeing the show we’ll also send messages to them in some way.”

Mengistu got into graffiti and street art, the art form he is most known for internationally, when he was 18. He was introduced to it by a woman visiting AYCC from the United States who had studied and specialized in hip-hop culture.

“She saw me painting so she came to me and talked to me about graffiti,” Mengistu said. “I didn’t know what she was talking about, I didn’t have any idea. So the next day she showed me on a laptop what graffiti looks like, what street art looks like. I said, ‘Wow, this is beautiful, I want to try it.’”

Intrigued, Mengistu continued researching graffiti online. He started by practicing on paper before buying spray paints and practicing on walls.

“So six years ago, that’s how I started,” Mengistu said. “And I didn’t know (at the time), but I was one of the first graffiti and street artists in Ethiopia.” Mengistu was also the first graffiti artist in Ethiopia to have an art show, which was held in 2012.

Over the last six years Mengistu has collaborated on projects with international street artists from countries including Germany, Spain, Australia, Kenya, and South Africa.

“I got a lot of experience from (working with) different artists,” Mengistu said. “You can share more ideas, like how to use sprays or how to do a big piece. So I learned a lot. In the six years I got the experience to know more about the art, to learn, and to do more projects.”

Here in Vermont, Rigali and Mengistu started the “mobile mural project” while they were in New Haven and continued to work on it during Mengistu’s time at TVMHS.

“The concept around it is that it becomes like a traveling exhibition, but it’s a mural instead,” Rigali said. “We designed it so it can be broken down and then set back up again for installation at any school that would like to participate.”

Rigali said having schools and communities participate in this exhibition would “enhance and continue the conversation of having Behulum here” and also demonstrate what a cultural exchange is.

“(A cultural exchange) takes a number of different forms,” Rigali said. “It could be him giving presentations in our schools, it can be the exchange of two artists collaborating to create one piece of artwork. All these things are big in and of themselves. Within the context of the mural, there is imagery in the work that we’re having a conversation about culture and about identity.”

Both murals have special meaning to the artists, each artist having chosen an animal to paint that represents the artist’s culture or country. Rigali chose a deer and Mengistu chose the walia ibex, an animal found in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia.

“Meghan is the one who came up with the mural project,” Mengistu said. “The idea is to put both cultures together, to try to show Ethiopian and American cultures. So we tried to use animals that represent both countries.”

“There’s going to be more in terms of what happens when the two panels meet in the middle and converge as far as what is a communication and what happens in collaboration and exchange,” Rigali said. “What really happens is, we’re able to do something and understand things together more than we would if we were on our own. We’re all human beings and we want similar things for ourselves: family, safety, and to be able to flourish and feel good about living on earth no matter what part of the world we’re from.”

The mobile mural’s final home will be on the Willowell Foundation land, Rigali said. The founder and executive director of the foundation, Matt Schlein, who Rigali said has been a “significant person to make (this program) happen for four years,” has an outdoor sculpture park where the mural will be installed.

Mengistu also worked with Rigali’s printmaking class while he was visiting TVMHS.

“It’s a really amazing opportunity to have someone come halfway across the world to share what he’s doing with us,” Rigali said.

Mengistu helped students create their own designs for screen printing, focusing on themes like cultural exchange, identity, and activism. After Mengistu gave a schoolwide presentation to the students, the designs were used to screen print T-shirts that students brought from home. Mengistu was there during the activity to assist and even offered his own design for the students to use.

Mengistu goes to Burlington next to continue his Aikido training and to work on a project with a local graffiti artist there. “With the time I’m (in the United States) the whole idea is to meet more people, to promote One Love and aikido, to practice aikido more, and to meet more artists and do more projects,” Mengistu said.

When Mengistu returns to Ethiopia in June, he will continue working on his recent project called Share the Love. With this project, he and fellow artists go into neighborhoods to create street art for communities to enjoy. The art they create is determined by feedback they get from community members, who are asked to share words or ideas that are meaningful to them.

“We go around rough neighborhoods in the city, like Addis Ababa or Hawassa,” Mengistu said. “Everybody shares their words (with us), and then, as artists, we paint that with different colors.” Photographers are invited to come and take photos, which are then used to promote the work on social media.

“It involves the community, it involves the artist, and it involves the media,” Mengistu said. He also noted that “not everyone has the chance to go to a gallery,” and this project is a way to share art with more people and more communities.

Mengistu admitted that it has been difficult getting funding for Share the Love. “Because many people don’t know about graffiti or street art, they don’t try to support these projects,” Mengistu said. “When I go back I’ll try to reach out to more organizations to support this project.”

Mengistu said he now has more than 15 or 20 kids who are involved with street art and graffiti, so he recognizes the importance of having projects like Share the Love.

“We want to have a project that they can all (participate in),” Mengistu said. “Most of the kids try to put out their feelings through this art. It’s a way of expressing yourself through street art or through graffiti.”

Not only does Share the Love provide a creative outlet for young artists, it also enriches communities in Ethiopia, regardless of social class.

“I believe everybody needs it,” Mengistu said. “The good thing about street art is you don’t have to go to galleries to see it. Everybody who is poor, rich, whoever you are, you can see it because it’s on the street. It’s a really good thing for the whole Ethiopian community.”
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