From the Vault: Elias Sime, "Future Shock," and Approaching Equilibrium through Layers

Aug 28, 2022

by Aaron Wilder, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Roswell Museum

© Roswell Daily Record

“Tightrope: (31) While Observing ...,” 2018 by Elias Sime, Reclaimed Electrical Wires and Components on Panel – Courtesy of the Artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York


In last month’s column, I focused on artist Ranu Mukherjee. This month, I would like to continue celebrating Future Shock: (Re)Visions of Tomorrow, a large exhibition inhabiting three galleries at the Roswell Museum co-curated by Roswell Museum Executive Director Caroline Brooks and myself. Also, I would like to continue discussing the idea of approaching equilibrium through layers by focusing on another participating artist: Elias Sime.

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1968, assemblage artist and sculptor Elias Sime was enrolled in the Allé School of Fine Arts and Design in the 1980s during the end of Ethiopia’s communist period. During this time, students were expected to strictly adhere to the conventions of Socialist Realism. Even though Sime was drawn to material experimentation, his options were to bend to the will of his teachers, be forced into exile like many other artists, or to be drafted into the military for active duty on the front lines of one of the many civil wars happening at this time.

Sime chose the path of least resistance and channeled his stifled creativity into future-directed energy: “In retrospect, my teachers’ control helped me think differently,” he reflected during an interview with Will Fenstermaker for a 2020 article in Artnet News. “I had to fight to show what I could do, and I had to wait until I graduated to do it.” Sime completed his studies in the early 1990s, right around the time the Marxist regime in Ethiopia collapsed. Since graduating, Sime exhibited widely in Addis Ababa and began to be included in group exhibitions at prestigious museums in the United States starting in the late 2000s. Sime now exhibits his work extensively around the world.

Sime’s work is intensely layered and assembled from carefully selected objects including discarded computer and telecommunications fragments. He collects many of these materials from open-air markets in Ethiopia’s capital. He is very particular about the materials he collects due to their important aesthetic role in his large compositions. Often, he has to wait years to complete some of his works due to limited availability of some parts.

When looking at Sime’s work from a distance, a viewer might not notice the kinds of materials Sime patiently accumulates. What seems like large abstract paintings from afar, are revealed to be sculptural and beautifully composed, largely from e-waste. Sime is insistent, however, that his practice is not about “up-cycling,” but rather a series of meditations on relationships. As Fenstermaker wrote in the same 2020 Artnet News article, Sime “wants to tell stories about our relationship to the earth and to each other. A landscape of braided wire represents connectivity, but also the extraction of rare minerals from the earth and technology’s intervention into our social order.” The artist’s approach is to draw people in from across the room with strategic aesthetics. As they get closer, Sime’s hope is that the realization of the viewer as to what the works’ materials are will prompt critical thinking. In a 2019 interview with Seph Rodney of Hyperallergic, Sime said, “The artwork doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shock you, but it poses questions, without disturbing you.”

Included in the exhibition Future Shock: (Re)Visions of Tomorrow are two large wall works by Sime, one on display in the Roswell Museum’s Russell Vernon Hunter Gallery and the other in the Spring River Gallery. Both of the exhibited works are from the artist’s Tightrope series. For Sime, these works may allude to different things, depending on the viewer, but the former direct use and handling of the components that comprise each piece is what is most important to him. “I transform things I find into art,” the artist has said as quoted by Nan Chisholm in the exhibition text for Elias Sime: Tightrope at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. “I prefer things that have been touched or been in contact with people … when I first saw a motherboard, it reminded me of a city, of landscapes, as well as of the people in the factory who assembled it.”

For Sime, the reason for the series’ title Tightrope has to do with our precarious addiction to a spiraling cycle of acquiring, obsessively using, and capriciously disposing of technological products at an unsustainable pace and the entwined implications on our interactions with others. In the artist’s own words: “My work reclaims these machines in a tender way, as I am not in opposition to technology. It’s about how to balance it with ‘real’ life. We’ve become off-balance … ‘Tightrope’ … has a double meaning. It’s about this equilibrium, but I also wanted it to evoke a string: If you pull it too tight, it will break.”

In the exhibition Future Shock: (Re)Visions of Tomorrow at the Roswell Museum, Sime and other artists seek to (re)animate, disrupt, fragment and intervene for a (re)purpose of the space between the artificial and the ecological by approaching equilibrium through layers. Furthermore, Sime and other participating artists explore the effects of automation, gatekeeping, and planned obsolescence in the mass production of technology as well as of the anonymity inherent in the “Uberization” of labor and (dis)connections between individuals through human-machine interfaces.

We would like to extend our humblest appreciation to Elias Sime as well as Samara Brenneman, Emily Ruotolo, Annie Stuart and Bethany Widrich at James Cohan Gallery (New York, New York) for their help in facilitating the loan of Elias Sime’s work for this exhibition.

The exhibition Future Shock: (Re)Visions of Tomorrow is on display in the Roswell Museum’s Donald B. Anderson, Spring River, and Russell Vernon Hunter Galleries through October 30, 2022.

For more information about the Roswell Museum, visit

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