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Michael Adonai: Inspiration of a great Eritrean artist

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon where most people go out shopping anddo some other extracurricular stuff, and I had to be on time for my appointment at 3:30 sharp. I went up a third floor apartmensomewhere in the down town streets of Asmara to find Michael Adonay, one of the most prominent and leading painters in Eritrea. He was there in his studio with his very close friend staring at each other’s eyes.

His friend was staring deep with a frowned face but Michael’s eyes were darted at his friend with great care and amazing skill. His friend was not just an ordinary person, rather a young Kunama in a painting. I entered his studio in the middle of his work but the painting was almost finished. It looks so real I said to him, and Michael said, “this is what you call realism”, that was an interesting way of introducing me to his friend, which he later told me that he kept him company for over 20 days.

Michael Adonai was born in 1962 and joined the liberation struggle in 1977 when he was 14. During his childhood, Michael used to play with brushes and water colors because his older brother Berhane was one of the renowned artists in the early 70s. Michael says that his brother was his inspiration in the field of art. When he joined the revolution, Michael was sent to a camp of young recruits, where he found the opportunity to further enhance his basics in the arts. Besides, while taking his academic studies at Comboni middle school in Asmara, he took drawing as a subject.

Back during the revolution times, there were great artists who were teaching the novice recruits including Michael. Being one of the young students, Michael began to demonstrate his amazing talent and he painted his first oil color painting of a mother and child in 1980. That painting would pass for a professional work of art even at this point in time. The artists back then employed every talent they got for agitation purposes to induce the principles of the struggle into the minds of the general public

Art is all about passion and state of mind but your eyes should not be confined. One needs to have a broader view of the world to be a great painter. When it comes to talent, most artists during the struggle were gifted, but they lacked exposure to the world. The only thing they saw was the struggle and the only thing they reflected was what they saw around them.

By 1986, Michael became one of the best painters in the revolution and he initiated connections with foreign painters that came to teach. But the very decisive juncture for Michael’s artistic work was 1989 when he moved to the highlands. He said, “It opened my eyes to the rest of the world”, the lifestyle, the demography and setting in the highlands is very different from the heart of the revolution, which was in the Sahel region. At that point in time, Michael saw paintings in monasteries and was amazed, which led to his inspiration to have a Coptic semi-abstract inclination in his work.

Michael says, “Art is a reflection of what you see in your environment”, in that sense, Michael started reflecting what he saw in the monastery paintings and even the features he came across in the highlands, which might have lifted his creativity in his field. By then, he had become one of the leading artists and the paintings he drew in the late 80s and early 90s are masterpieces to this time.

Apart from painting, Michael also has a talent in the field of literature. He had his base during the 70s where he wrote small stage dramas for his school and in fact has his record in the revolution for writing the first published book of original work, which was titled Ab Igri Ta Abay Kewhi, (At the foot of the Great Rock). Later after independence, Michael published his first novel, which was called Mesakuti Mai Mne, (The gates of Mai Mne), which he says was “A flashback of my experience in the highland areas of the Mai Mne village”. Although Michael was sent to the area in 1989 to do his painting work, he yearned to conduct a research concerning the militia bandits dispatched in the area.

Michael is not just an artist, he is a well read and very well informed about many things that happen around the world. He dropped out of school to join the liberation struggle, yet he managed to read lots of things starting from Russian literature to a number of academic materials. Accordingly, he joined the University of Asmara after independence, dropped out again from his sophomore studies for different reasons.

Anyone with a little knowledge about painting would just pick out Michael’s painting from a thousand different paintings. I thought his style was different from the others, but Michael gave me broader overview of what style means when it comes to painting. He says, “Style is a philosophy of life”, it means defying the conventional way and coming up with a new one. By then one could claim of a new style. “But what we do here is” Michael says, “Select a style of some particular great painter of all times and give it our own elements to reflect one’s own character”. Only few great painters such as Pablo Picasso have had that gift to come up with a certain style.

We had our very casual conversation for around one hour and I came out enlightened about the real meaning of painting and my passion to admire if not to paint grew very high. Indeed, the young Eritrean artists have a lot to learn from the great artists such as Michael and even he believes that the growing talents need to follow a certain track in the field to achieve their desires.

Main Link to Michael Adonai’s work:


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