Sculptures of many shapes and sizes pepper the lush grounds of Addis Ababa's Alle School of Fine Arts and Design at Addis Ababa University.
At first glance, their expressive human characteristics seem akin to those of artist Henry Moore. The sculptures exhibit a heightened level of skill and knowledge of abstraction surprising for university students who have not ventured outside Ethiopia.
For more than five decades, the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, the only art school in Ethiopia, has produced notable artists, painters, sculptors, printmakers and designers who have contributed to the country's art community. Founded by the late Alle Felegeselam, one of Ethiopia's prominent 20th-century artists, the school, like Ethiopia, has experienced many ups and downs.
Looking towards the future
But all of this is changing for the East African nation. Ethiopia is an example of Africa's steadfast move to the future. According the latest International Monetary Fund Economic Outlook for Africa, Ethiopia is Africa's fastest-growing economy for 2019. The country has a growing entrepreneurial middle class, a historic new rail line to its Djibouti neighbour and major developers in the UAE, such as Eagle Hills in Abu Dhabi, which is making its foray into the Ethiopian real estate market with the launch of La Gare, an enormous residential project in Addis Ababa where you will find more than 4,000 homes.
In Addis Ababa, Chinese developers are helping build an 80,000-seat mega-stadium, while on the Sudanese border, Italian engineers are assisting in the construction of the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa. There have been political changes too. In April of 2018, a promising young prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, was appointed, followed by the election of the country's first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde, in October last year by members of the Federal Parliamentary Assembly.
Among several artistic initiatives is the new Zoma Museum, which will open to the public on Sunday. An eco-homage to Ethiopia's indigenous architecture as well as a home to contemporary art, the museum has been in the pipeline for 25 years and aims to display the vernacular architecture of Ethiopia and other parts of the world, merging old and new art.
In 2003, artist Elias Sime transformed his house and art studio into ZCAC (Zoma Contemporary Art Centre), to create a new platform for art in the city. Co-directed by Sime and curator and anthropologist Meskerem Assegued, the site, now part of the Zoma Museum, was one that they had been working on for 20 years, slowly buying up land to offer the community a new space for art and culture.
Today, the museum has three galleries for video art, wall and floor installations and coin collections. There is also a library, gift shop, children’s centre, restaurant, amphitheatre and a garden area, ideal for large-scale art installations.
Giving Ethiopian artists exposure
Rakeb Sile and Mesai Haileleul, co-founders of Addis Fine Art, the country's first commercial gallery with bases in Addis Ababa and London, are giving Ethiopian artists exposure at home and abroad. The gallery, which opened in Addis Ababa in January 2016, launched AFA Project Space, in London, specialising in 20th-century modern and contemporary African art.
"We believe building both the local and international markets simultaneously will be key to long-term growth and appreciation of art from this region," Sile says. "Artists should have a strong collector base at home, and be part of the wider contemporary art discourse with their counterparts on the world stage." By early 2020, the London gallery, which currently shares its space with art dealership Tafeta, will move to Cromwell Place, a first-of-its-kind exhibition space in Kensington, London.
Sile began collecting art in 2009. Every time she would return home to Addis Ababa to visit her grandmother she would visit local galleries and buy new pieces. She previously worked in business consulting and project management and on a visit to the first 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London six years ago and was surprised by the lack of Ethiopian artists. "There were no galleries or artists from my country," she says.
"It made me think about the wider African contemporary art movement and how my collection fit into that discourse. Why is Ethiopian art not on the international art scene?"
A desire to give back
Her search for answers led her to Los Angeles where she met Mesai Haileleul, who had been living there for more than 30 years and championing artists from his homeland. He had not been back to Ethiopia in decades, mainly because of The Derg, or the Co-ordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police and Territorial Army that ruled the country from 1974 to 1987. "The first time I went back was in 1992," Haileleul says. "The country had changed after 17 very hard years of communism. It had completely wiped out that beautiful memory I had of Ethiopia. A lot of people I knew either left or were killed."
With the encouragement of Sile and the desire to give back, he returned home to open Addis Fine Art.
"Our mission was to be a local space with an international platform," Sile says. Ultimately, the gallery's aims are to promote their country's rich artistic heritage and contemporary art to the rest of the world. Addis Fine Art has exhibited and worked with approximately 20 artists and represents 12, including names such as Girma Berta, Tizita Berhanu and Eyerusalem Jirenga, Tadesse Mesfin and Wosene Kosrof.
It will return for the second consecutive year to Art Dubai with two of the country's most promising painters: Addis Gezehagn and his teacher, well-known modernist painter and veteran professor, Tadesse Mesfin. "The rich and ancient artistic history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church played a major role in shaping the style of early Ethiopian modernists," Sile says.
"Soon after the transition from church-influenced art to modern expression occurred, Ethiopia went into more than two decades of Communist revolution starting in the early 1970s. This greatly inhibited artists' ability to freely practise along with their counterparts across the continent and beyond."
Fortunately, the persistent work of the oldest art school in the country, Alle Felege Selam School of Fine Art and Design, which opened during the 1950s and where Tadesse Mesfin has been teaching for the past 34 years, alongside the recent addition of new private art schools, Ethiopia is now experiencing a resurgence in artistic expression and appreciation.
"The art world's interest in art from Africa is positive, albeit a belated development," Haileleul says. "We believe that the African art discourse and global contemporary art movement would be incomplete without recognition of the immense amount, and quality of contemporary expression currently coming out of Ethiopia and East Africa as a whole."
Facilitating a long-lasting dialogue
And that raises another question: how does one characterise the African art discourse? “We feel it’s important that each region of Africa is appreciated for its individual art historical context and aesthetic expression,” Sile says.
"In order to do that, strong local and/or international specialist galleries and practitioners must be present to engage the market. If not, the danger is that 'African art' will be seen as a homogenous aesthetic without the need for the market to explore its artistic diversity. We feel very strongly about collaborating and working with our colleagues in East Africa to champion the region because it is an under-represented yet rich space in modern and contemporary fine art."
Artists in Ethiopia face structural obstacles that affect their earnings from the sale of their work.
"Firstly, there is a punitive income taxation system, which means there is no distinction between artists and manufacturers or retailers," Sile says. "And so, they are subject to 30 per cent income tax on earnings. Compounding this is the high import taxes on basic items such as paint, brushes, archival paper, etc. The sector suffers because it is closed off to foreign direct investment, and this means that only local money can go into the development of the commercial sector. These policies must change, if Ethiopia is to see a step change."
Addis Fine Art has been instrumental in fostering that change, but more needs to be done. “We didn’t let these obstacles stop us when we started, but now that we have been here for three years we know that these are major issues for growth,” Sile says. “Therefore, we are in the process of setting up an Association of Fine Art Galleries in Ethiopia with our colleagues in the sector to lobby for change and further support from the government.”
Ultimately, it is about facilitating a long-lasting dialogue at home and abroad through art. “Our desire is that our art will transcend the label and become sought after for its merit, hence sustaining itself by integrating in the mainstream global art market.” As Ethiopia looks ahead to its bright future so too does its art.