Elias Sime, Tightrope: Contrast, 2017, Reclaimed electrical wires on panel, 73 x 158 inches / 185.4 x 401.3 cm, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery
Elias Sime, Tightrope: Contrast, 2017, Reclaimed electrical wires on panel, 73 x 158 inches / 185.4 x 401.3 cm, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery 

Elias Sime is a multi-disciplinary artist working primarily in relief sculpture and architecture. For more than twenty-five years, the artist has made collage and sculptural assemblage from found objects such as thread, buttons, plastic, animal skins, horn, fabric and bottle tops, alongside organic building materials and binding agents such as mud and straw. Many of the objects come from Mercato, the Addis Ababa open-air market said to be the largest in Africa, and in particular the market’s Menalesh Tera section—literally “what do you have?”—where trash is repurposed in resourceful ways and its new potential is shared among the community.

Sime’s work achieves effects from dense narrative to austere modernist abstraction. The artist resists the collagist’s shorthand of using discarded objects as traces or poetic stand-ins for human feelings or individual lives, favoring instead the idea of what Frieze writer Quinn Latimer has called “the feverish fusion of a multivalent society.” Sime is as interested in a stripped motherboard from a mobile phone as he is an animal skull or worn-out button: the artist looks past the emotional weighting of new versus old, instead finding renewal everywhere, and taking greatest interest in the way that objects and ideas can connect in new ways.

Sime has a masterful handling of material, with fluency and pure formal instincts a hallmark of his practice. In the past decade he has sought to better understand the cultural and historic underpinnings of those instincts, traveling with the anthropologist Meskerem Assegued through rural villages in Ethiopia to research ancient rituals still in practice. Sime collects histories and vernacular techniques as much as objects.

In Holland Cotter’s New York Times review of Sime’s first commercial gallery show at James Cohan in fall 2015, he wrote, “His work, while culturally specific, has always been universalist. And although never without critical thrust–no one knows better the horrors visited on Africa by shipments of toxic Western e-waste –it is utopian. Certainly some of what’s in this show has a kind of concentrated beauty I haven’t seen in his art before.”

Elias Sime is one of the most prominent names in the East African art scene, having founded, designed and constructed the Zoma Contemporary Art Center in Addis Ababa, an international art center described by the New York Times in 2014 as “a voluptuous dream, a swirl of ancient technique and ecstatic imagination.” His work has been shown internationally at the Dak’Art Biennale in Dakar, Senegal; the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna, Austria; and in the US at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Studio Museum in Harlem; and a survey exhibition that traveled from the Santa Monica Museum of Art, California, to the North Dakota Museum of Art. Sime designed props and artwork for Peter Sellars’ production of Igor Stravinsky’s opera Oedipus Rex, which has been performed at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Sydney Opera House.

Elias Sime’s work is included in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Israel Museum, Jerusalem; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Perez Museum of Art, Miami; North Dakota Museum of Art; Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville; Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire; Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY; and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO.