Haile Berhe is an ex-fighter and painter who now work in the National Museum of Eritrea as the Head of Documentation Service and Public Relations. He is among the Group of people who had works to establish the National Museum in 1992, and has been working in the art archives of the Museum for the past 25 years. ELEM has an interview with it and excerpts follow:
How did you become a painter? What or who were your influences?
I was influenced by my older brother Berhane Berhe. He was interested in magazine and newspaper, and he would ask me to sketch copies and make copies of soccer players and film stars from magazines. I did sketches of footballers, Pele and Eusepio Fachetti, Gugliano Gemma, Liz Taylor, Aretha Franklin, James Brown.
Can you tell me about your history as a fighter? What influenced you to join the struggle for Eritrean independence?
I joined then armed struggle in 1975 and even when I was young, I was influenced by older brother to demonstrate. In 1975, the vision was dark for Eritrea. We taught: if we can have our freedom then, atrocities can’t happen. We needed our freedom and liberation.
You continued to practice your art during the struggle, does art matter during such situations?
I see art as part of struggle that raises awareness of the people. This is why the EPLF formed a cultural troupe for each brigade. It is different to create art on the frontline because in the one hand, you have to carry a gun to fight the enemy, and a brush in the other hand. But no one seem to be bothered by the issue.
Logistically how could you create art during war time? Where did the colors, canvas come from?
In 1977, pre-Massawa, I decorated our underground unit with colors from the enemy. And later when I was injured in 1982, and I was hospitalized for a year then I joined the art center on the fronts. At the art center, I practiced oil color, water-color and charcoal. There we had materials donated from devoted nationals.
There were hundreds of committed, talented artists involved in the struggle, Poets, painters, writers. Do you think artists have a specific role during a time of struggle?
Yes, artists have a responsibility to pass the heritage of the people, document the struggle.
I notice that in your work, and in the work of so many other painters during the struggle, that not only documenting scene of war , but you ‘re also documenting the peaceful landscapes of Eritrea and the daily rituals like people farming and a women braiding a girls’ hair. Can you tell us about what compelled to document such scenes?
At that time the art was for mobilization and raising awareness and all the painting were the work of the choices of the artists. And everyone knows that the day to day ritual of the people need also to be documented alongside the works done in the fields.
I bow to the legacy of the generations before us who so carefully and wholeheartedly documented the names, places and visions.