“It’s very difficult for African descents to talk about our sexuality out in the open because it affects our lives,” says Mentwab “Mentu” Easwaran, an Ethiopian immigrant who made the U.S. her home in the ’90s. “I’ll come out here and say it, because there are a lot of people back home who do not know about my sexuality. In Africa, it’s still a crime, and there are a lot of religious people in my family.
“At least for me, I can say I’m a lesbian living in Washington, D.C.,” Mentu continues. “I have a supportive family. But I know so many who do not, and I know so many who cannot express who they are, what they are, and who cannot love freely. I’m in the process of breaking that barrier for myself right now. Because it becomes a gridlock on creativity.”
Mentu has been an artist since her days growing up in Ethiopia “without access to art, books, and materials,” and where she “drew on floors of houses and painted murals on school walls made of cow manure and mud.”
In the decades since she moved to the U.S. and earned a degree from the Parsons School of Design in New York, Mentu has worked mostly as a graphics and user interface designer.
Yet she’s also never stopped painting and creating work as an abstract expressionist.
“The thread that runs through all of my work is my storytelling,” Mentu says. “While I start each piece without a direction in mind, all of my work ties back to three central themes. It’s about migration, life as an immigrant, and love. And I feel a responsibility to tell them honestly, without embellishing them, through my own perspectives.”
The DC Center for the LGBT Community is currently showcasing Mentu’s artistry with a display of her large-scale fine art canvases as well as a series of original coffee mugs.
“The DC Center is the first gallery to host me,” she says. “I have a hard time having my work placed in galleries.”
One mug series on display features drawings of couples in both same- and opposite-gender pairings. They’re the only thing that comes close to being LGBTQ-specific in the Center’s Momentum exhibition.
But the mugs are a harbinger of what’s to come from Mentu, especially as she pushes herself to be more out in her art, to help sharpen the focus and augment the stories conveyed through her colorfully vivid and vibrant style.
“It’s very challenging, not only for me, but for others who are in the same kind of situation, the same kind of scenario,” Mentu says. “I am at this place where I am successful, I am doing all this work. Yet I have it hanging over my head that, by putting something out there that is so related to me, I’m going to lose a lot of people. And that’s the fear in my life that I really want to break.
“The whole thing about not coming out, being in the dark, having fear of people surrounding you, somebody has to do it,” she says. “And if my message can bring some kind of a light to…people, then let it be. At the age of 48, I think I am old enough to say what I need to say.”
Momentum by Mentwab Easwaran is on display through mid-June at the DC Center, 2000 14th St. NW. Call 202-682-2245 or visit www.thedccenter.org.
For more on Easawaran, visit www.EthioGallery.com.
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