An introduction to key figures, from pioneers in the creative community, to emerging talents changing the face of contemporary creative production in Ethiopia and beyond.
Visiting Addis Ababa University's Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, a seminal institution, was the entry point to begin our research visit. The school would also be our host for the Addis Ababa 89plus workshop.
We had the chance to sit down with Bekele Mekonnen Nigussu who shared insights about the school’s inception during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie:
“It’s the only school we’ve got; it’s the state of art in the country. There were small schools before ’58 … around ’56 a guy [Alle Feleghe Selam] who came back from Chicago Arts School – he’d graduated – tried to establish a school like this one for the country. He had been trying to knock on the door of the palace, and in 1958 he succeeded to establish the school."
—Bekele Mekonnen Nigussu, Assistant Professor of Fine Arts, Alle School of Fine Arts & Design
Netsa Art Village was located at Ferensay Park, one of Addis Ababa's only designated green spaces. The compound included a studio space and exhibition hall, and was the gathering point for diverse artistic events, which included concerts, poetry evenings, art talks and workshops as well as exhibitions. Kedebe mentioned the network however has gone into hiatus with the loss of its venue. An initiative by the city who "came up with an idea to reform and commercialise the park” Mehret explained, however ran into problems when it failed to secure bureaucratic consensus leading to Netsa’s eventual eviction.
We also met with Aida Muluneh, a dynamic individual and artist behind the city's premiere photography festival, Addis Foto Fest.
"I realised that within the context of photography there wasn’t proper training; the university does not have a photo department. So all these things basically led me to start developing a workshop series. And it wasn’t just a matter of the workshop series, but it was also presenting works. So in regards to these Foto Fests, I didn’t want to do a festival that was just Africa-based because I find that to be very limiting with the fact that we’re moving towards a global world. Within that, I thought it was important that we have to bring better photographers from every part of the world, but the main conversation being the image of Africa, and the image of Ethiopia, and how you have to promote the collaboration and networking."
—Aida Muluneh, founder of Addis Foto Fest.
Learn more: addisfotofest.com
Santu Mofokeng – who we had met only a few days before – came up in our conversation with Muluneh. A solid education and practical knowledge is at the bedrock of her projects, citing the bigger aim and impetus for her efforts:
"I’m really pushing that we have solid photographers coming out of Ethiopia. And the conversation comes back to who’s representing us as far as images..."
There, we sat down over coffee to meet with the young curator, Fitsum Shebeshe. Studio practice in Ethiopia has traditionally been consider paramount, it is the decisive factor that splits the older generation from those coming up now:
“I’m part of this new generation who are thinking to push the boundary and create something new, by thinking outside [of] the studio where they work, with a societal engagement and by trying to exercise and bring in new mediums and new ideas into society. For me this new generation is the one that is trying to bring Ethiopian art into a new level."
—Fitsum Shebeshe, curator, National Museum of Ethiopia
The Pioneer, Alle Feleghe Selam
Aside from founding a modern art school in 1955, which today is known as the Ale School of Fine Arts and Design, Alle Feleghe Selam is esteemed as a pioneer and key figure in the modernisation of visual art in Ethiopia.
He is ascribed as one of the few visionaries of the 20th century. He introduced secular representation of Ethiopian society with his paintings that depicted daily life and included landscapes and portraiture.
Meskerem Assegued is a curator anthropoglot. She has been collaborating with artist Elias Sime for some 20 years. Together they have been researching and documenting vernacular architecture, traditional mud building, and ancient rituals practices throughout Ethiopia. This has played a significant role in inspiring Zoma Contemporary Art Center that the duo co-founded.
"This house was a metamorphosis. It was continuously changing, evolving, and new ideas were always coming. Just like a traditional mud building."
The site is remarkable; there is a strong relationship between the outside and inside. Commenting on this, Hans Ulrich asked Sime at what moment the garden became important for him.
"The whole idea was to connect it all. As one thing is being built, for instance, when you do the garden, you have to harmonize it with the building or with the wall. Or if you see one area, the next has to communicate with it and create some kind of liaison."
—Elias Sime, artist and co-founder of ZCAC
Sime grew up in the Addis Ababa neighbourhood known as Qirkos (Cherkos). Although it is considered a rough part of town, Sime holds quite the opposite opinion and attributes growing up there as being a large part of what inspires him and allows him to see beauty where others don't. He is a master of bricolage.
For more info: zcac.weebly.com
Although the 89plus workshops focus on a post-Internet generation, intending to research how instant knowledge affects and informs the way they see the world and create, we also had the opportunity to meet a few of their older peers. They included Robel Temesgen, Rediet Terefe Wegayehu, Fitsum Shebeshe, Helen Zeru and Abel Asrat.
Rediet Terefe Wegayehu (b. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1988) is a passionate writer and poet creating pieces of literature and experimenting with presenting them through different platforms such as sound and performance. Because of her background in theatre, her works naturally fuse with other mediums to deliver poignant poems and scripts.
‘Love Against the Odds’ courtesy of the artist, and
Badilisha Poetry X-change
Helen Zeru (b. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1988) is a visual artist specialising in woodcuts, performance, video art and photography. Her works are a social commentary on political and social issues within her hometown, Addis Ababa. Zeru's performance works are subtle, and often use a singular action to make a statement on issues affecting to the city's residents.
Abel Asrat (b. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1988) is dedicated to writing, collating and disseminating information about Ethiopia. He is the founder of online platform addisinsight.com , a participant in the WikiAfrica In Residence, and event organizer for TEDxAddis (2013).
Travelling throughout Ethiopia for research is an essential part of Tamrat's practice. He documents the people he meets, the codified worlds typifying tribal life including their spiritual relationships to nature, colour and pattern. He translates these experiences and the emotions they conjure into inspiration for his artistic practice.
On the outskirts of Addis Ababa, some miles out, in an area described as the Grand Canyon of Ethiopia, we caught up with the talented filmaker Yared Zeleke. He was keen to introduce us to the majestic lands. It was a wistful moment, for his first film Lamb is an ode to a magical childhood spent in Ethiopia with the woman who raised him—his grandmother. He describes Lamb as a film about “a paradise lost.”
Lamb, Zeleke’s first feature length film, has garnered numerous prestigious awards including Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2015, the first such award for an Ethiopian film.
The 89plus Addis Ababa research program was initiated by 89plus co-curators Simon Castets and Hans Ulrich Obrist, in collaboration with publishing platform Another Africa, and its founder, Missla Libsekal. They were joined by 89plus art residency participant and South African emerging artist, Bogosi Sekhukhuni.
This project was made possible with the support of Google Cultural Institute.
With thanks to the following individuals and institutions for their support:
Akilas Abera, Desta For Africa, Meskerem Assegued, Katherine Campbell, Zoma Contemporary Art Center, Berhanu Ashagrie Deribew, Katherine Dionysius, Studio Olafur Eliasson, Olafur Eliasson, Tamrat Gezahegne, Elizabeth Giorgis, Teddy Goitom, Florian Hollunder, Iceaddis, Mihret Kebede, Marcos Lemma, Aida Muluneh, Bekele Mekonnen Nigussu, Ato Alle Feleghe Selam, Fitsum Shebeshe, Elias Sime, Stocktown, Robel Temesgen, Alle School of Fine Arts & Design (Addis Ababa University), Netsa Art Village, Yared Zeleke, Mifta Zeleke and more.