14 July 2013

Shashemene Pioneers Pop-Up Exhibition

Meme Dyer

Meme Dyer holds a portrait of herself I took in 1981 when I interviewed her father Noel about his epic journey to Ethiopia. The print of Noel Dyer is hanging behind her. © Derek Bishton

IN 2013, more than 30 years after my first visit, I returned to spend time with the Rasta community in Shashemene, Ethiopia to work with Italian filmmaker Giulia Amati. As part of the project I created a pop-up exhibition of 70 photographs I had taken in 1981. This report is from my diary of that day.

Although it’s the rainy season here in Ethiopia right now, yesterday was a warm, sunny day – perfect weather for an outside exhibition.

The event was a double celebration. First, it was filmmaker Giulia Amati’s birthday. Giulia has been living in Shashemene since March, staying with various members of the Rasta community, sharing their daily lives and researching individual stories for the film project we are working on.

The birthday party was her way of thanking everyone for their kindness and hospitality over the past four-and-a-half months.

When Giulia told me of her plans for the party a few weeks ago, I suggested it would be the perfect opportunity for a pop-up exhibition. I had made around 70 A3 prints from the films I shot in 1981 in preparation for my trip and my idea was to find a place to pin the photos up, get as many of the original pioneer settlers and their families, sons and daughters to come and see the show, and invite them to take away their photos.

Yesterday it all came together. I strung up some twine between the guava trees in the courtyard of Naphtali’s (a lovely venue run by a Rasta couple from Trinidad on the King’s Highway, the main road into Shashemene) and hung the photos using simple wooden clothes pegs.

What followed was really a very emotional afternoon. Sadly many of the pioneers I photographed have passed on, but in many cases, sons and daughters were there to claim the photos.

Perhaps the most poignant moment was when Meme Dyer, the daughter of Noel Dyer (the legendary Rasta who walked from England to Ethiopia in 1964) saw a photograph of herself as a four-year-old, sitting on her father’s lap. Although I had sent many prints back to the people I had photographed in 1981, somehow I had missed out Meme. And here, suddenly, was a very precious image from her childhood staring back at her.

There were lots of other powerful moments. Brother Bunny, the Rasta whose bedroom I had shared when I stayed in Shashemene, took it upon himself to become the exhibition guide for the day, gathering groups of youngsters and taking them around and explaining who all the people in the photos were.

The photographs also sparked discussion about the need for an archive and museum space in Shashemene, something which I would be very keen to support.

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