post Addis Ababa Art Scene

January 20th, 2008

Filed under: Art — Lissan Magazine @ 16:38

Addis Ababa Art Scene Revisited
by Esseye Medihin

//untitled, by: Ayele Assefa, oil on canvas//

Three decades ago, the art scene of Addis Ababa was dominated by the three maestros: Afewerk Tekle, Gebre Kristos Desta, and Skunder Boghossian, recipient of the Haile Selassie I fine arts award. Afewerk was important for his contribution as the first to introduce contemporary techniques to Ethiopian subject matter and content, Gebre Kristos for being responsible for introducing non-figurative art into Ethiopia and Skunder for trying to give the linear-graphic ancient Ethiopian art a new image. All three were European-educated, which was typical at that time. Many others did not achieve that status in imperial Ethiopia, and even today are not honored and recognized by their compatriots, as they should be.

//Bale Gariw, by: Behailu Bezabeh, oil on canvas//

At the beginning of this century, the Christian Ethiopian painting that had flourished for hundreds of years in the churches and monasteries of highland Abyssinia was fading and giving way, leaving behind a unique form of art for a new kind of artistic representation. The forerunners of this new genre of painting were the many church-trained dissident painters and other self-taught artists, some of whom enjoyed commissions for their works. These artists, along with those whose art education was in Europe in the 1920s and ’30s, brought about a new tradition in the visual arts culture in modern Ethiopia. By the 1930s, the members of this new class of painters were hired by the government and recognized as professionals. And by the 1960s, the number of painters following the first graduating class of the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School, and those coming from abroad with a new kind of painting, (known as international style) grew steadily. As a result, three main traditions of painting developed.

//Black Sun, by: Getachew Yosef, oil on canvas//

The first is the realistic or naturalistic style that describes both Ethiopian pathos and glamour. Like the literature of the time, the subject matter of these paintings was based on a new reality–Nationalism. Second is the myth of Abstractionism, Expressionism and Surrealism, the inquest of spirituality in the style of the Western avant- garde movement, which, in most instances, turns out to be an assertion of Ethiopian/African identity through the visual arts. The last is represented by an impressionist, expressionist and social realist style intended to be sentimental and political in nature with its depictions of the cluttered, shabby streets of the cities, urban scenes and the downtrodden masses. These three main artistic traditions existed side by side until 1974 with the overthrow of the emperor.

In 1977, when the country mobilized its professionals for a cause, the newly organized Ethiopian Artist’s Association show opens at the Addis Ababa City Hall Gallery as a testament to its solidarity with the “Ethiopia Tikdem” motto of the Derg. Out of nationalistic feelings and hope for a better future, even such figures as Maitre artists Afewerk Tekle and Gebre Kristos Desta submitted their works to the show. With few exceptions, all artists were involved in one way or the other in the dubious future of the socialist revolution and were therefore producing an Ethiopian style of socialist realism in painting and sculpture. This kind of artistic practice dominated in the late 1970s and 1980s. The very few who adhered to the previous artistic tradition were the odd men out. Either they were not understood or were left to practice their passion alone. Thanks to their political astuteness and knowledge of how to survive, artists like Woku Goshu , the late Tassew Chernet , Zerihun Yetmgeta ,Teshome Bekele, and Tebebe Terfa risked their lives in their quest for individual expression. However, they were fortunate to be able to show their works frequently to keep the tradition of the late ’sixties and early ’seventies alive. With the exception of lesser-known artists’ shows, which were taking place here and there in Addis Ababa, supporters of socialist realism were not interested in showing their works, but were instead encouraged to conform by a system of rewards and privileges through commissions. Many, like the respected artist Abdel Rahman M Sherif saw this sort of compensation as a “fulfillment, genuine enough, of their professional ideals.”

//Coffee Ceremony, by: Tesfaye W. Selassie, oil on canvas//

Although explicitly political art had been created in Ethiopia since the end of the Italian occupation, it reached a peak during the Derg era. The military government of was the first to try systematically recruiting and training artists for propaganda and other specifically political purposes. The comrade militants, who believed that art would help advance their principles, advocated an artistic language that would deny and overlook the complexity of the country and the peoples’ collective psychological make-up. Later, the Ministry of Culture became the mobilizing force. With the help of the socialist-oriented Ethiopian Artists Association, it tried in vain to instill socialist realism in the artistic culture. The artistic freedom and experimentation that flourished during the imperial government was discouraged. The concept of religious, spiritual or historical values and the subjective psychology of the artist were totally rejected. The result was a body of work that was merely hot-headed and pompous. The only works worth mentioning from this period are the murals in Debre Ziet at Gegnoch Amba by Afewerk Tekle, Besrat Bekele and Demissie Sheferaw, which are, of course, too political for the artistic tradition of the country but in accord with general aspirations of the time. All said, any truly artistic approach did not come directly from above in the form of governmental instructions or policy, but from peer pressure at the sides. After the formation of the Workers’ Part of Ethiopia in 1984 and the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in 1987 North Korean artists took over the primary role of the Ethiopian Artists Association at least tacitly. They set about immediately to embellish the image of Mengistu Hayle Maryam–the party leader on all of their work.

Today, not even a decade later, these propagandistic art works are considered as nothing more than archeological or historical objects, far from inspiring the masses as they were intended. The artistic situation of the late 1970s and 1980s has dissolved once and for all. However, since the new generation of artists is affected and was even a result of the tumult of the recent past, the mind-set as to what to do and how to define what is done still lingers. Nonetheless, the creative force of freedom seems to have taken the upper hand and transformed the artists for the better. Themes, techniques and subject matter repeat themselves in endless yet lively variation in an attempt to gain a sort of approval and recognition. The urge and the passion to match the efforts of the past, to catch up with lost time (not so much vis-a-vis the international art movement–but as painter Taddesse Mesfin puts it vis-a-vis the time wasted during their own “self-imposed slavery”) is so evident that most found it essential to regroup and find comfort and reassurance within themselves. Since 1993, the silence of the Ethiopian Artists Association has forced many young artists to defend their profession on their own. Artist/painter groups are sprouting up in all forms like never before.

//Galler Wise, by: Geta Mekonnen, mixed media on paper//

These groups are not specifically formed to enhance one type of art style, approach or artistic philosophy. Instead, they are simply alliances of artists who have something in common–social problems and situations that in themselves do not encourage or foster artistic activities. Without sacrificing their individuality, as a group they hope to be more visible in order to approach cultural centers, or institutions for help and sponsorship of exhibitions and exhibition spaces. As a group they also hope to be taken seriously in their attempt to teach the people about art. Among the many artist groups formed in the last seven years, the most visible are the FOWA, the Point Group and the Dimension Group. Addis International which was one of the first groups to be formed, organized a show of the works of about 40 artists in 1991, but has since curtailed its activities while newcomers like the Double Blue group are becoming increasingly active.

FOWA (Friendship Of Women Artists), with its motto “We are more than one,” informally named 36 Ethiopian women artists in the early ’90s as members, the first group of its kind in the country. At present, it is left with only 12 members. In September of 1997 it released a 40-page Amharic and English language catalogue which contained a kind of manifesto. The Royal Netherlands Embassy in Ethiopia, Pact, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, the British Council and Goethe-Institute and numerous individuals helped finance the publication of the catalogue. It includes color reproductions of all 12 members’ works and their pictures, along with a fascinating interview with each artist. Each one has a sensible and contemporary outlook about art in general and about the role of Ethiopian women artists in particular. As indicated in the catalogue, the purpose of the group is to encourage and enhance the opportunities of underrepresented women artists of all ages. The group’s objectives are to promote Ethiopian women artists in any way possible, nationally as well as internationally, and elevate the artistic awareness of the Ethiopian female.

Members of the FOWA group include
: Embet Aweke (b. 1955), exhibition expert at Addis Ababa Fine Arts School; Embet Belete (b.1968), art instructor at the Greek Community School; Fanaye Tesfate (b.1968); Kelemua Hailu (b.1969); Ketsela Mengistu (b.1969); Mahelet Abrham (b.1969); Mihret Dawit (b.1969); Mahlet Worku (b.1957); Naomi Tesfaye (b.1968); Selamawit Aboneh (b.1968); and Senafkish Zeleke (b.1967), all graduates of the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School, as well as Sofia Asefa (b.1954), who studied at the Surkov Academy in Moscow and is presently an instructor at the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School. The group had its first exhibition at the German Cultural Center in Addis Ababa in March of 1998.

//Forest, by: Emebet Aweke, oil on paper//

Embet Aweke, a mother and the most recognized artist of the group, and whose late father was also an artist, addressed the role of mother and artist (in a conversation with Assfaw Damte in 1997), saying that “each of the two roles is very difficult by itself. Obviously, playing both roles simultaneously and maintaining an appropriate balance between them is doubly difficult. In order to succeed, one needs patience and unwavering commitment. Otherwise, either one or the other will be sacrificed.” The president of the FOWA group, Embet Belete, who thinks that patrons of fine arts in Ethiopia are mostly foreigners, says that an appreciation of beauty and the visual arts among Ethiopians needs to be encouraged early in the schools. Embet, along with the rest of the group, hopes that the catalogue, “will inspire other women artists and women of all ages who are interested in the fine arts.” Women artists are in a much more precarious situation than their male counterparts; however, given the right situation, they can overcome their disadvantages to be on equal footing with male artists.

//Seated Figure, by: Muze Awel, wood//

The Point group was formed in the early ’90s by a group of artists in their 30s. These artists are all graduates of the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School except Ayele Assefa (b.1958), whose education was in the former Soviet Union. Point group started with nine artists but currently numbers seven members, including Addisu Worku (b.1964), art instructor at the Indian National School; Gebreleu G Mariam (b.1965), graphic artist in the ministry of Health; Luel Sahele Mariam (b.1966), art instructor at Addis Ababa Fine Arts school; Mesfin H Mariam (b.1966) artist s with Mega Art Production; Samuel Sharew (b.1966), the only artist in the group and probably in the country who earns a living as a painter, and Tesfaye (Tesfu) W Selassie (b.1966), art instructor at Addis Ababa Fine Arts School. This group gained wide recognition with its first show at the Alliance Ethio- Fran├žaise in 1992 as well as its successful show in 1994 at the National Museum. They seek to bring about a change in art activities and situations. As Tesfay W Selassie states, “The Point group’s motives are not to foster an elitist attitude, with the indifferent multitudes lost in oblivion, but rather to impress and influence it without any mystification whatsoever.” By so doing they hope to cultivate their audience and grow with them. Beyond their love of popular culture and their mingling with the contemporary life of the people, they show an abiding interest in both the historical and traditional iconography of Ethiopia and Africa. According to Ayele Assefa, the group doesn’t adhere to any specific artistic style or philosophy, nor does it discriminate against any artistic style. It is open- minded and is interested in discussion and analysis of any form of art, past or present.

The next group, called Dimension, features another nine artists, in their 30s and 40s. All but three received their art education in the former Soviet Union. This group includes: Geta Mekonnen (b.1965), a studio artist and commercial video producer, who studied in Great Britain; Muze Awal (b.1961) , instructor at Addis Ababa Fine Arts School; Mulugeta Tafesse (b.1960), who studied in Bulgaria and is presently working for his Ph.D. in art history and aesthetics in Belgium and Spain; Mezgebu Tessema (b.1960), instructor at Addis Ababa Fine Arts School; Behailu Bezabih (b.1960), Addis Ababa Fine Arts School graduate and presently art instructor at the Bethel Makane Yesus School, Addis Ababa; Taddesse Mesfin (b.1953), instructor at Addis Ababa Fine Arts School; Eshetu Tiruneh (b.1952), advisor, Ministry of Culture; and Kidane Belaye ( b.1950), instructor at the Fine Arts School.

//Scarecrow, by: Geta Mekonnen, oil on canvas//

According to its spokesperson Geta Mekonnen, the Dimension group was formed to overcome an artistic trend that has been going on in Ethiopia for quite some time: an artistic style which is largely interested in representing the traditional icon-like Christian Ethiopian figures. All members of the group believe that this kind of artistic fashion has too long dominated the market, with little or no regard for the standards of the art-loving public of Addis Ababa and the efforts of contemporary Ethiopian artists. According to Mezgebu Tessema, the group was also formed to help “serious” artists participate in group shows regardless of the number of works they are able to produce. He believes that, given the situation in the country, this type of occasional group show may be the only way for the public to see any of their works. Bekele Mekonnen believes that because of their successes in organizing these types of shows, their works have been better exposed to the public with greater attention and awareness. The Dimension group, formed after the earlier groups got more recognition, after it organized an exhibition of works of the late artist/poet Gebre Kirstos Desta in 1996 at the Alliance Ethio-Fran├žaise.

Outside of these groups, there are numerous artists, veterans and novices, who are experimenting and pursuing alone the most challenging part of creation: giving a special and diverse flavor to contemporary Ethiopian art. The concept of their art reflecting their Ethiopian identity so important to the early painters and critics is not much of a concern to the new generation of Ethiopian artists. Unlike their predecessors, they don’t seem to be worried about projecting their identity in their art. Leuel, who never worried whether his paintings reflected his Ethiopian identity states: “My concern is how to achieve what I wanted to do and whether I succeeded or not …If my work in the end looks European, American or Arabian, so be it. I never questioned myself if I am an Ethiopian or an African.” Taddesse Mesfin said, “I will be glad if it is recognized as Ethiopian, but if there is anything Ethiopian in my work, it is a natural outcome. I never intend on making my works Ethiopian.” Mezgebu states, “Whatever technique or style we employ and follow in our art, there is something in all of us that is Ethiopian that can be deciphered in our work–it is up to the critic or the historian to search for that particular characteristic.” Bekele Mekonnen said that “any work of art done by an Ethiopian is by definition Ethiopian; consequently, in the broadest definition, anything done on Ethiopian soil that remains in Ethiopia for a considerable period of time must be considered Ethiopian.” Geta Mekonnen addresses this age-old artistic question by noting, ” We are only artists doing art works: painting, sculpture, video art, etc. These problematic notions of identity are as ridiculous as affirming that an Ethiopian can only do art works like the Christian Ethiopian type of painting and that Africans can only do masques and figurines. We all hope that our works are true representations of ourselves and not caricatures of Ethiopian or African culture.” Nevertheless, the relation between Christian Ethiopian painting, African traditional art and contemporary Ethiopian art, a subject dear to Ethiopian artists of the late ’sixties, particularly to the home- grown “Native Modernist” Zerihun Yetmgeta, remains a topic of much discussion among the young generation of Ethiopian artists.

//My Same, by: Mulugeta Tafesse, acrylic on canvas//

In late ’60’s and early ’70’s, most works by graduates of the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School reflected the social conditions of the country. Whatever its style and technique, it was an art of social commentary and social solution. At present, with social conditions worsening, this kind of theme is back again. The trauma, the crisis, the spiritual illness and the painful reality of the country’s past and present are subjects of interest to many artists. Bekele Mekonnen creates amazing assemblage sculptures using non-traditional materials, to depict pathetic and down-to-earth street personages. So does Getachew Yossef with his series “Under the Sun,” as well as Tesfay W. Selassie and Behailu Bezabih. While a significant number of artists, including Geta Mekonnen and Addisu Worku are involved with satirical comments on contemporary myth and evils; renowned artists like Taddesse Messfin and Eshetu Tiruneh have given up their favorite theme of the downtrodden masses and the huddled, ordinary people in favor of experimenting with styles similar to the American abstract and abstract expressionist painters of the ’30’s and ’40’s.

Members of these groups, as well as those more established individual artists, are more regularly exhibiting their works, recreating the rigorous artistic activities of Addis Ababa of the 1960s and 1970s. Even more so, the scene has been gaining an international flavor with an exhibition of expatriate artists and Ethiopian artists living abroad. A number of new galleries devoted to contemporary art, coupled with enthusiastic new collectors, are heralding Addis as an important art center once again. As far as the impact and validity of the contemporary paintings and sculptures on the society are concerned, it is hard to imagine any sort of immediate change. Posterity will likely consider it a significant cultural achievement of the age and will marvel at the artists’ audacity and commitment.

Given the fact that a strong cultural infrastructure found in most developed countries is totally lacking in Ethiopia, and is not likely to exist any time in the future, bringing about a new tradition that is more a result of local processes must be expected of our artists. History has put on their shoulders the burden and excitement of being their own dealer, curator, historian and critic. Among their many concerns, they need to consider reaching a wider audience. Rather than the traditional fashion of opening exhibitions at the customary places in a conventional way, they need to think of alternative ways of displaying their works. They have to look for more effective ways of popularizing and disseminating their works and try to move away from traditional patronage, including the government. Their achievements as artists become more meaningful only when their works reach a wider audience rather than a handful of the usual patrons. One way of doing this is to create a community-based art project that benefits that community.

by: Esseye Medihin

Statements and opinions expressed in this article herein are those of the authors. Lissan Magazine accepts no responsibility whatsoever for the content.


  1. I found this article extremely interesting and informative. As a British student currently researching the influences on Ethiopian illustrations in published works for children, I am interested in exploring the broader art scene in Ethiopia. As a person who lived in Ethiopia for 2 years I am aware of the lack of any art education for young people when (or if) they leave primary education. I support your suggestion to create a community based art project to develop talents and awareness.

    Comment by Helen Papworth — 4. February 2008 @ 12:27

  2. Hi youn fnd this

    Comment by Valeyskatrt — 21. July 2010 @ 18:38

  3. Seeking support by fund/ grant/ fellowships to join Visual Art / Studio Painting. Thanks,
    Prof. Dr.Shahariar Talukder,
    Fine Arts, Univ. of Chittagong, Bangladesh

    Comment by Dr.Shahariar Talukder — 16. December 2011 @ 12:20

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