August 2015

89plus Addis Ababa Research Highlights


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.

Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, Addis Ababa University
Founded in 1958, the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design stands as the only formal arts education institution in Ethiopia. Established by pioneering artist Alle Feleghe Selam, it has produced many of Ethiopia’s most notable artists. The degree program established in 2000, includes Painting, Sculpture, Printmaking, Industrial Design and Art Education departments. 

Sculpture is a prominent medium at the school, and the grounds are home to numerous statues produced by students over the years.

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

Since 2010, Berhanu Ashagrie Deribew has been the head of the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design.

Learn more about the institution:

The inaugural Addis Ababa 89plus workshop welcomed 16 creators born in or after 1989, who came to present their work during the closed session.

Stopping in at a local roadside cafe, Emuye Bet to meet with artist Mihret Kebede, co-founder of the monthly poetry and jazz event running since 2008, Tobiya Poetic Jazz, and Netsa Art Village.

Mihret is a leading protagonist in the arts community of Addis Ababa, a catalytic individual, keen to promote exchange and growth.

In 2008, Mihret and several fellow graduates from Alle School of Fine Arts and Design launched the artist network, Netsa Art Village.

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:

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..."

—Aida Muluneh

After leaving Muluneh's studio and creative consultancy Desta For Africa, we headed over to the Goethe Institut and the Gebre Kristos Desta Cultural Center which houses the Modern Art Museum.

Modern Art Museum
Named after one of Ethiopia's most celebrated modern artists, painter and poet Gebre Kristos Desta, this museum houses both a permanent collection of the artist's work as well as temporary art exhibitions.

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

As much as this trip was geared to meet practitioners raised in a post-Internet world, understanding what came before was also crucial.

The name Alle Feleghe Selam came up repeatedly as the answer to our question, "Who is a pioneer and inspiration for you?"

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.

Playing a historic role in contemporary artistic practice and education, it was a pleasure and highlight to meet the senior artist and pioneer, Feleghe Selam who sadly passed away in July 2016.

The renowned portrait of Mrs Gedarif Ras Wubneh in the artist's home

Zoma Contemporary Art Center
ZCAC (Zoma Contemporary Art Center) is an eco-sensitive and educational art venue where a variety of art related activities take place, including residencies. The concept was first introduced to the public in 2002, during Giziawi #1 , its first art happening. Named after Zoma Shifferaw, a young Ethiopian artist who died of cancer in 1979, ZCAC is in two different locations in Lafto, a sub city within Addis Ababa. ZCAC Addis is a house built by Elias Sime, and ZCAC Museum is currently under construction. ZCAC is run like a family where the surrounding community is an extension of the center. 

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."

—Meskerem Assegued

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

"I wanted to do something that actually touches everyone. When kids come, they have things that are familiar for them. They recognize the turtles, the frogs, the little creatures, and they immediately connect with them."

—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:

Alphabet, Elias Sime's contribution to Hans Ulrich Obrist's project, Protest against the Disappearance of Handwriting, on Instagram.

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.

Robel Temesgen (b. Dessie, Ethiopia, 1987) is a visual artist whose practice is intrinsically linked to his community, creating works that explore the concept of sustainability and an understanding of sociological changes. His works are critical of societal norms as he strives for change.

Temesgen's Another Old News is a low-cost newspaper: 40 pages of recycled blank paper filled with handwritten 'news'.

No duplication, no distribution, no reprint, no segmentation, just rotten news.
Or news that is not,
Or news that is,
Or news that,
Or just news.

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

Listen to the poet reciting a love poem in her mother-tongue, Amharic.

Fitsum Shebeshe (b. Hawassa, Ethiopia, 1986) studied painting. His practice has evolved to include curation, in response to the need for more exhibiting opportunities for artists in Ethiopia.

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 , a participant in the WikiAfrica In Residence, and event organizer for TEDxAddis (2013).

Our last studio visit was with artist Tamrat Gezahegne.

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.

The eyes of Injera, artist Tamrat Gezahegne's contribution to the Protest against the Disappearance of Handwriting project by Hans Ulrich Obrist on Instagram.

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.

2015 Annual Graduating Students' Art Exhibition
We were lucky to get a preview of some of the works featuring in the year-end exhibition of Alle School of Fine Arts and Design. The graduate show, curated by Mifta Feleke, was shown at Addis Ababa University and opened in August 2015. 
89plus, Another Africa
Credits: Story

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.

More info:

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.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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