By Jenny Kwon
In Bahir Dar, surrounded by clusters of paintbrushes, buckets and vivid paintings hanging on his studio walls, Eyayu Genet begins sketching his latest idea on the broad canvas beneath him.
With only a black marker in hand, he lays out his vision: covering the bottom is water, symbolizing the Blue Nile River that has connected people for centuries. Emerging from the water stand three women, one of them Egyptian queen Nefertiti, representing the people who depend on and share the Blue Nile. Behind them, boats carry people across the water as sun rays frame the background.
With the help of Les Voix du Nil’s Arthur Larie and Bastien Massa, two French filmmakers documenting stories along the Nile, Eyayu transformed the sketch into a vibrant painting in one month.
This colorful piece was later named “Sugypia,” an amalgamation of Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, three neighbouring countries served by the Nile. It is one of many created by Eyayu, a prominent Ethiopian artist-activist born and raised on the banks of Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake and the source of the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile, or the Abay River, is one of the three main tributaries of the Nile River and provides 70 per cent of the Nile’s floodwater at Khartoum, Sudan, where it joins the White Nile, another tributary.
An artist of national consciousness, Eyayu incorporates both the symbolism from these bodies of water and indigenous aesthetics into his paintings and collages. His art is characterized by contrasting themes like traditionality versus modernity and the organic versus the artificial, aiming to raise awareness of the culture of Lake Tana and the Blue Nile’s lakeside communities and the environmental issues they face.
One crucial issue Eyayu highlights in his pieces is the threat of the enboch, or water hyacinth, in Lake Tana. Since its initial appearance in 2011, the water hyacinth has exponentially grown to cover more than 40 thousand hectares, becoming a key environmental issue in Lake Tana and raising national and international concern.
The invasive water weed’s rapid growth blocks sunlight and decreases water flow and oxygen levels, killing aquatic species in Lake Tana. This harms the fishing industry, clogs hydroelectric power canals and threatens the lake’s ecosystem as well as communities that rely on Tana for their water supply.
Water hyacinth reproduction is outcompeting efforts to eliminate the weed using human labor and weed harvesting machines. Since October 2012, government officials have mobilized around 162,000 local volunteers to remove the weed by hand. However, researchers are discussing potential solutions such as using Neochetina weevils to eat the water hyacinth — a solution already implemented in Lake Victoria — as a form of biological control in Lake Tana.
Using art to promote shared use of the river
Eyayu isn’t the only activist using art as a way to promote transboundary cooperation and awareness on Nile-related issues. The Nile Project is an initiative created in 2011 by Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero to inspire and educate Nile citizens to “collaborate on cultivating the sustainability of their river” and reduce tensions surrounding water disputes among countries in the Nile Basin.
The program assembles people from all 11 Nile Basin countries into community choirs to foster cross-cultural musical collaboration. Local university students also connect with researchers, policymakers and executives to develop joint solutions to food sustainability. Within six years, the Nile Project produced two albums, led 200 workshops and gave over 140 concerts in nearly 90 cities.
Other artists from the Nile Basin such as Kioko Mwitiki, a Kenyan artist-activist, have used art to raise awareness of environmental challenges facing the continent as a whole. As an “accidental recycling artist,” Mwitiki creates life-size “junk art” sculptures by molding wild animals from waste material to highlight the importance of recycling and the treatment of Africa by other countries as a waste dump. In 2017, as part of the Cairo Climate Talks, a joint initiative between the German and Egyptian governments, Egyptian theater troupe Khoyout performed plays written by climate activists on issues such as water scarcity, displacement and natural disasters, and then engaged in participatory theater by incorporating the audience’s climate change-related stories.
The work of these artist-activists is able to inspire and raise awareness of environmental issues across Africa that range from pollution to climate change. Yet, there are few examples of local activism that focus on using art to advocate for water issues, promote transboundary collaboration and honor the culture of water.
Eyayu’s pieces, embedded with love for his culture, the Blue Nile and the environment, have reached many audiences. In Ethiopia, his works have appeared in the National Museum, Alliance Ethio-Francaise and the Goethe Institute. Eyayu’s art has also been exhibited in the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, Ecuador, Uganda, Qatar and France.
Despite international recognition, Eyayu remains grounded in his home and committed to fostering bigger conversations around issues such as the water hyacinth and pollution threatening the health of the Blue Nile. “There has to be projects which really enrich this area so that the water flow would be sustainable,” he insists to Les Voix du Nil.
He believes governments should invest in more transboundary art and activism projects to inform the public.
Eyayu’s emphasis on promoting connection among communities in Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan is relevant given the ongoing geopolitical conflict of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Launched in 2011, GERD is the biggest hydroelectric project in Africa built along the Blue Nile. While the Ethiopian-financed dam is projected to bring over 15,000 gigawatts of clean energy per year and benefit all three countries while reducing the impact of climate change, Egypt and Sudan, situated downstream, fear that the dam will cause a possible drought and reduce the Nile’s flow, water quality and vegetation.
The political divisiveness of the dam and lack of agreement among the three countries increases the urgency of Eyayu’s work. His focus on the one-ness of the Nile and the countries’ collective reliance on the river motivates communities along the Blue Nile to become more invested in sustaining the river’s health. “As an artist…I want to emphasize…this cooperation,” he explains. “Governments are representations of people, but let people by themselves start to create discussion.”
Les Voix du Nil hopes to carry Eyayu’s “Sugypia” and share his vision with other communities along the Nile. Looking at “Sugypia,” people familiar with Eyayu’s work will recognize the familiar tall woman in all blue. She appears in his other pieces, the glowing sun framing the orbs of life she distributes to the other figures in each painting.
The characteristic ebbing, flowing waves of hair connecting her to people embody Eyayu’s views of the Blue Nile’s relationship with dependent border communities, including his own. The life-giving river “is like a gift from God through the people of Ethiopia for Egypt,” Eyayu expresses reverently. “I believe that if we are divinely connected with nature, we have to copy the principles in nature.”
Eyayu’s advocacy for sustainability and transboundary cooperation are rooted in the principle of having harmonious relationships with each other and our environment.
“You give something and you take something,” he affirms. “In nature, there is no border. The air flows. The water flows. And there are birds which cross the political lines. There is freedom. There is a principle of giving and receiving.”
This story was produced in partnership with Les Voix du Nil.