Cutting edge art movement emerges in Ethiopia

Under a canopy of trees in a park not far from Addis Ababa’s National Museum, home of many of Ethiopia’s historic national treasures, a contemporary art revolution is quietly afoot.

March 29, 2013
Cutting edge art movement emerges in Ethiopia
Cutting edge art movement emerges in Ethiopia



Jenny Vaughan






ADDIS ABABA — Under a canopy of trees in a park not far from Addis Ababa’s National Museum, home of many of Ethiopia’s historic national treasures, a contemporary art revolution is quietly afoot.



It is here at Netsa Art Village that the experimental work made from shoelaces by Merhet Debebe can be found, or the vibrantly-colored work of Tamrat Gazahegn, who uses tree trunks as canvases.



Nearby are the giant sculptures of jazz musicians, trains and horse-drawn carts made from metal scraps and trash by Tesfahun Kibru.



The collective, the only one of its kind in Ethiopia, is made up of 15 artists who are spearheading Ethiopia’s contemporary art movement, shifting away from endless copies of Ethiopia’s ancient Coptic Christian paintings.




Still in its infancy, the movement marks a daring shift away from the commercial art that dominates many of Ethiopia’s mainstream galleries, and seeks to put the country on the map in the international art world as a source for cutting edge work.



“We’re trying to say that Ethiopia is not just a place for cultural and historic and prehistoric treasures, but contemporary work too,” said Desta Meghoo, an art curator living in Ethiopia. “We don’t want to continue to be a footnote in art.”



Ethiopia held its first international art exhibition earlier this month.



The show, at the capital’s National Museum, co-curated by Meghoo, displayed the work of young, relatively unknown Ethiopian painters next to the works of famed international artists, including Brazil’s Oscar Niemeyer and Portugal’s Paula Rego.



For Ethiopian painter Merid Tafesse, who had two pieces in the show, the exhibition is an opportunity to tell the world that there is more to Ethiopian art than the kitsch sold to tourists.



“This is good not just for me as an artist” said the dread-locked artist, smoking a cigarette.



“Most Ethiopians cannot see where Ethiopia is in the fine arts industry, so this will give good exposure,” he added.




He said most buyers look for cliches in Ethiopian art — wide-eyed cherubs, traditional crosses, worshippers in white mantles — but he and his contemporaries are producing work outside that box, even if it means suffering commercially.



“It is easier for most people to connect with the commercial art because they see some motif of the church, or some cultural clothes, so they think that represents Ethiopia better. But the personal expression... of an artist is what makes it art nowadays,” he said. Some artists, namely Tamrat, are using themes found in traditional Ethiopian art, but in experimental ways.



He paints scripture on traditional-looking scrolls, for example, but the words are his, not lifted from the Bible, and the scrolls are painted in vibrant greens, yellows and oranges, not a common palette in traditional art. As striking as the work is, Mehret said most artists struggle to make a living. Though the collective provides a space for artists to produce their work, it does not guarantee sales. – AFP


March 29, 2013
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