CPS headquarters will be the new home of Calgary artist Sisay Shimeles. An immigrant from Ethiopia, his work is aiming to bridge gaps between community and police.

By Mary Getaneh (Star Metro Calgary) |

CALGARY—Charcoal-drawn faces and outstretched hands now grace the walls of the Calgary Police Service headquarters.

The pieces are large and captivating — titled “Faith” and “Hope” — and will be on permanent display at the headquarters. It’s a somewhat of a shock to Sisay Shimeles, the local artist behind the pieces, who never imagined he would ever leave his homeland of Ethiopia.

At the age of 24, Sisay, then a recent graduate of fine art from Addis Ababa University, was one of two artists chosen to represent Ethiopia at World Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany.

He was excited to show off his art skills and represent his country, but when he landed in the new foreign place, he learned how the West viewed Ethiopia. CNN, BBC, and other news channels were showing how war, drought and famine were plaguing the nation.

Sisay Shimeles was devastated that he didn’t know about it — he couldn’t fathom that eight million people were suffering from droughts throughout the 1980s and ’90s.

“We only had one news channel in Ethiopia at the time, so they told you what the government wanted.”

And as an artist, he wanted to incorporate what he was seeing on the news to his piece, but that was met with scrutiny from the Ethiopian government.

“The government wanted us to focus on how Ethiopia is the land of coffee and that there are more than 80 tribes living in harmony, but that was a kind of fairy-taleish aspect of the story.”

Against the government’s wishes, the two artists decided to create something that blended both the current realities of Ethiopia with the image they knew.

“It’s not a harmful thing what we did to the government. We just added a little bit of something that the government didn’t want,” says Sisay. “We were thinking if the government doesn’t like it, should we expect people at the airport waiting for us with flowers?”

What was only supposed to be a month-long trip ended up being a nearly 10-year stay in Germany. Fearing his safety, Sisay chose to stay in Germany and was granted political asylum.

Sisay created a new life for himself from scratch. He learned the language, culture and enrolled in a graphic design program in Germany. The two pieces that hang at Calgary’s police headquarters were part of his final grad project.

Continue reading this story at Toronto Star (Calgary)
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