Work in Progress: Elias Sime—“I make art because I am addicted to it”

In a new series, we go behind the scenes with artists who are bringing their latest works to Frieze fairs. Addis Ababa-based Elias Sime talks about his current work amid mounds of computer junk

BY Livia Russell AND Elias Sime in Frieze New York , Interviews | 03 APR 24

Work in Progress checks in on artists bringing new work to Frieze fairs to find out where they are at. In this installment, Addis Ababa-based Elias Sime shares an update on “THE EARTH (ምድር),” a solo installation presented at Frieze New York 2024 by James Cohan Gallery. 

Elias Sime
Elias Sime, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2023. Courtesy of James Cohan, New York. Photo by Alice Hendy

Livia Russell How is your practice currently evolving?

Elias Sime I neither pay attention nor worry if my art is evolving. It is specific moments and circumstances that spark change – these moments of inspiration change my art. Sometimes, it takes me a long time to finish a piece of art because I stubbornly search for the specific color and materials I imagined to complete the work. It could take me several years to collect it, but I wait as long as it takes. I think art is capable of evolving because everything around us evolves. I am fascinated by the history of a specific place, material and time, especially when I can explore how it connects to the present. I always start with sketches on small pieces of paper and spend a great deal of time on each. These sketches appear simple at first glance, but they are loaded with ideas. They are meant to spark my memories and my responses to certain moments. Transforming the ideas from my sketches to the panels or sculptures is actually the easiest part of my process even though these assemblages are quite labor intensive.

LR Where does the work you will be presenting at Frieze New York 2024 fit within this evolution?

ES The works that will be shown with James Cohan at Frieze New York reflect my current thoughts and feelings about our relationship with this planet. When I make art, I don’t think about where or when it will be shown. Any evolution that one finds in my art happens because I am always evolving, absorbing what I see from the world around me. No human being exists in stasis.

Elias Sime’s studio, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2023. Courtesy of James Cohan, New York. Photo by Alice Hendy.
Elias Sime’s studio, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2023. Courtesy of James Cohan, New York. Photo by Alice Hendy

LR Are there any new sources of inspiration that are guiding your current work?

ES My endless conversation with Meskerem Assegued, my longtime collaborator and the cofounder and director of Zoma Museum of Contemporary Art, is always a source of inspiration. Recently, we have been speaking about the mysteries and the stories contained within computers, specifically the variety of materials that power them and their functions. Meskerem’s love of digging deep into history and the way she shares it with me inspires me. For instance, in one of our casual conversations, she asked me, “Do you know about the precious metals hidden on the motherboards and how they are extracted from deep inside the belly of the earth?” This filled my mind with so many new and exciting ideas relating to precious metals and the insatiable appetite of humans to own the latest techology regardless of the danger it poses to our survival. This was the spark of inspiration that guided my current work. I have not stopped sketching and I know I will create many more artworks about this subject.

Elias Sime, The Earth (ምድር) V (detail), 2023–24. Braided electrical wires and electronic components on panel, 185.4 x 279.4 x 14 cm. © Elias Sime 2024. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Matthew Herrmann

LR What are you devoting your time to in the studio right now?

ES I am currently focused on my upcoming show in Venice, where the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf will be presenting a solo exhibition of new work as a collateral event of the Biennale. My entire time is devoted to finishing the works I’ve composed. I have two studios in Addis. One of them is where I transform my composition from the initial sketches to the large rows of wooden panels. I then map out the colors and the type of materials—be it braided wires, motherboards or keyboards—to be affixed to these panels. The second studio is where the panels are cut and the motherboards and the electric components are dissected and recomposed. It is also where the final touches are made before the works ship out for exhibition. All these processes happen simultaneously, so I am constantly moving from one studio to the other.

LR How is presenting new work at a fair different from a gallery show?

ES For me, there is no difference. I make art because I am addicted to it, and because I don’t know any other way of being. There are many compositions in my mind and the least of my worries is where they will be shown. I give the same commitment and dedication to each work, whether it is destined for a fair, a museum exhibition or a gallery show.

Translated by Meskerem Assegued

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Main Image: Elias Sime’s studio, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2023. Courtesy of James Cohan, New York. Photo by Alice Hendy. 

Livia Russell is a writer based in London, UK.

Elias Sime is a multidisciplinary artist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. ‘Elias Sime: Eregata እርጋታ’ is at Hastings Contemporary, UK, 16 March – 8 September 2024. Sime will feature prominently in the 60th Venice Biennale, Italy, 20 April – 24 November 2024.