For the past five years, contemporary Ethiopian artists have been making a name for themselves in the global art market, but it has long been approaching.
After nearly four decades of political unrest, famine and war, the East African country has found growing social and economic stability, with a growing middle class and investment in large-scale infrastructure projects. Since coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has followed a broad reform agenda that includes initiatives to strengthen culture.
Founded in 1958, the Ale School of Fine Arts and Design in Addis Ababa is one of the oldest schools of fine arts in Africa and was at the heart of Ethiopia’s modernist art movement. The vast majority of the country’s modernist artists were trained or taught there, including the painter and poet Gebre Kristos Desta, who is considered the grandfather of this movement, and Wosene Kosrof, who emigrated to the United States and the United States. whose work is in the Smithsonian and the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
Today, many of the school’s alumni are the country’s art stars, including Dawit Abebe, whose dramatic paintings often feature predictive figures with their backs to the world. And Wendimagegn Belete, which specializes in textile and painting collages, or Ephrem Salomon, powerful woodcut-inspired paintings have been collected by institutions around the world, including The Studio Museum in Harlem.
“Pillars of Life: Expectations II” by Tadesse Mesfin, 2020 Credit: Tadesse Mesfin / Eyerusalem Jiregna / Addis Fine Art
Kristin Hjellegjerde, who runs her eponymous galleries in London and Berlin, represents Abebe, Belete and Solomon and says Ethiopian artists have a specific aesthetic. “They tell stories,” he said over the phone, “they have a unique language that speaks to you.”
The country’s artistic language, which dates back to the paintings of the fourth century church, is not only informed by this “language”, but also by the fact that Ethiopia was so insular for a long time, and local practices they remained largely unaffected by the broader art trends in the world.
Now, however, artists are in a better position to share their aesthetics and narratives with the world. As Ethiopia opens up, a broad collective base is developing. “We’ve been telling people‘ You guys have a gold mine here and you have to take note ’because once the world takes shape, that won’t be unacceptable here,” said Rakeb Sile, co-founder of Arts of Arts of Andis. , which has galleries in both Addis and London, by telephone.
“Untitled XLIV” by Merikokeb Berhanu, 2020 Credit: Merikokeb Berhanu / Dawn Whitmore / Addis Fine Art
The work of Elias Sime, a multidisciplinary artist known for his relief sculptures – and another student Ale – has already found a global audience. Last year he was one of two artists to win the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, and this year he has been shortlisted for the Hugo Boss Prize at the Guggenheim Museum. In 2002, he co-founded the Zoma Center for Contemporary Art (ZCAC) in Addis, with curator Meskerem Assegued, and last year the duo opened the Zoma Museum, a privately run museum and arts space. They have also recently completed sculptures for the Unity Park sculpture garden inside the National Palace grounds in Addis Ababa, at the invitation of Prime Minister Ahmed.
“Earth Series (18)” by Ephrem Salomon, 2019
Credit: Ephrem Salomon Gallery / Kristin Hjellegjerde
“Artists don’t intend to leave the country as much as they used to, because they can do well by positioning themselves here,” Assegued said. “In recent years, artists have been motivated to experiment with different works and have mobilized, which is good news.”
Recent examples are the Mount Entoto Studio community space, located in the mountains overlooking the capital, which was created by artists Henok Melkamzer Yihun and Eyob Kitaba, and the Gize art collective, which was recently launched by a group of artists and educators, including multimedia artist Robel Temesgen. “Gize has been established as an alternative space in the city,” he wrote in an email. “We are currently planning and developing projects by the end of this year.”
“The City of Saints IV” by Jerusalem Jiregna, 2017 Credit: Eyerusalem Jiregna / Addis Fine Art
In addition to creating these non-commercial or non-governmental administrative spaces, a new generation of artists also goes beyond painting, which was the country’s main medium, to experiment with photography, video, installation and painting. performance art. Video artist Ezra Wube established the Addis Video Art Festival in 2015, and since 2010, celebrated photographer Aida Muluneh has directed Addis Foto Fest, which showcases the work of Ethiopian photographers alongside photographers from around the world.
While the art gallery scene is cramped and remains a challenge (the Asni Gallery, one of Addis’s recently opened stalls), the growing local and international exhibition is beginning to bear fruit. “It is important that we have a younger generation of Ethiopian artists at the auctions because we are attracting many new buyers,” said Danda Jarolimek, a Nairobi-based curator who manages the annual East African auction. “Those who have been collecting Nigerian, South African or Ghanaian art may not know huge amounts about East Africa, so it may be a starting point for discovering a new market,” he said in a phone call.
“Moment (18)” by Wendimagegn Belete, 2020
Credit: Wendimagegn Belete / Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery
Sile finds this encouraging. “When we look at the quality of the art, then yes, this could be the new epicenter. There’s a lot more talent and we’re just scratching the surface,” he said.
But according to Elizabeth W. Giorgis, author of “Modernist Art in Ethiopia,” the lack of art critics and historians in Ethiopia has “really marginalized the field.” Konjit Seyoum, who founded the Asni Gallery in 1996 and has had a great influence on the country’s art scene, agrees. “Much remains to be done in terms of developing all the different components for the promotion of contemporary Ethiopian art,” he wrote in an email, referring to the lack of public publications, archives and art museums. .
“Clearly, in the absence of this adequate infrastructure, these are small private initiatives that help put the country’s art on the global map.”
“Mutual Identity 33” by Dawit Abebe, 2020
Credit: Dawit Abebe Gallery / Kristin Hjellegjerde
Another reason why Seyoum believes that Ethiopia has taken a while to gain a notable role in the global art scene, is that, apart from the country’s insularity, the wider art world was not looked at. . For many years, not much attention was paid. to the artistic production of the country.
“Ethiopia had to wait [for] “He said his time has come to shine,” and, thanks to the number of artists, curators, gallery owners and art professionals who promote Ethiopian contemporary art in various ways, it is now proving a moment. really inspiring. “
Top photo: “The City of Saints X” by Eyerusalem Jiregna, 2017