SURROUNDED by Ethiopian artwork, artists, potential buyers and the curious, Ethiopian curator Mifta Zeleke crosses his legs on the floor of East Africa’s first independent arts agency, Circle Art, as he describes the “Addis Contemporary” exhibition.
It was a long and difficult process, selecting the 11 artists that would eventually be shown in the Nairobi-based gallery. Mifta explained that there are about 1,800 professional artists in Addis to choose from, though, due to various constraints, “only 200 of them are active and 100 are very active”. In the end Mifta, along with Circle Art agency director Danda Jaroljmek, made the final selection - opting for painters, painting has always been the predominant medium for artists in Ethiopia.
“Shemsu’s Kioosk”, Surafel Amare. (Photo/S. Spooner/Mail & Guardian Africa).
The reason being that the development of the modern art movement in the country is traced to the deeply rooted and dominant influence of church paintings. Mifta explains that fine art eventually developed further when Ethiopian scholars were encouraged by emperor Haile Selassie to learn abroad, as far as Italy and even Russia, and come back to “modernise the country”.
One prominent figure in this movement was Ale Felege Salam. He worked in a garage until the Emperor granted him a scholarship to study abroad where he received his Bachelors degree in Fine Arts from the Institute of Art, Chicago in 1954.
“In Between I”, Dawit Abebe. (Photo/S. Spooner/Mail & Guardian Africa).
Mifta explains how Felege Salam then went on to encourage the emperor to start up the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts which became the “strongest art school in Africa, in terms of developing artistic skills”. The school also became “the very starting point of modern Ethiopian art – until the present generation”. This was evident since all 11 exhibitors of “Addis Contemporary” had graduated from the school.
Despite this shared history, the style and subject matter that the artists addressed in their pieces reflected their own experiences of Ethiopia’s socio-cultural, economic and political issues. There was a commonality though. All the artists showing in the exhibition had elements which described their experience of the fast changing pace in Addis during this critical period of the country’s history.
“Forbidden Fruit”, Ephrem Solomon. (Photo/S. Spooner/Mail & Guardian Africa).
There was a great deal of resistance to this change, which has caused dramatic turbulence, and which was visible in some of the paintings. Mifta explained that “there are neighbourhoods [in Addis] that are at risk because of development. An example is Arat Kilo – an old historical place in front of the palace – which was a slum where people lived in harmony and were surrounded by a supportive, social fabric that existed among the neighbours. But for the sake of development, their homes gave way to the high rises and the residents were thrown to the outskirts of the city.”
The artwork became all the more valuable for exposing something that the artists were living with every day and Mifta expressed his excitement at the Nairobi exhibition since there was still little local investment in “Ethiopia’s creative economy”.
The exhibition was all the more unique since it was the first time that the Circle Art Agency had featured a single country exhibition and since “Ethiopia is not really integrated as an East African country, especially in relation to art, starting collaborations within the region is a crucial platform that will enable Ethiopian artists to gain international visibility”, explained Mifta.
Meklit series, Dawit Abbe. (Photo/S. Spooner/Mail & Guardian Africa).
Because of the lack of investment and visibility of Ethiopian artists, Mifta’s progression into art curation was more of an organic development, and not a typical story. He did not study art, his background is in English language and literature and he eventually went on to become a University professor in these subjects. With his passion being art however, he would frequent galleries in Addis, meeting artists and talking to them about their work. Eventually he started to organise small events at his house, hosting and giving talks, inviting artists from all backgrounds.
Today Mifta is the founding director of the Guramayne Art Centre. Though there are a handful of galleries in Addis, the real potential provided by a regional platform such as the Circle Art Agency heralds an exciting new age for East Africa’s artists.