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History, taking us forward in art

“The single act of providing and promoting public art will have transformational impact…”
Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian and GebreKristos Desta were prolific Ethiopian painters who played significant roles in “modernizing” art in Ethiopia. Both were born in the 1930’s; studied traditional church art in the 40’s; went to Europe on art scholarships in the ‘50’s; and returned to Ethiopia in the ‘60’s to teach art and work as studio artists. Finally, both embraced politically and socially charged, Pan African philosophy, which was reflected in their work.  The two marvels of Ethiopian modern art connected diverse subjects, contemporary concepts and new media, resulting in what some would call the beginning of the contemporary art movement in Ethiopia; still prominent on the Ethiopian art scene. Unfortunately, their fresh and innovative approach drew heavy criticism as both were accused of turning their backs on the Ethiopian art standard of the day, for European styled painting.
On the other hand, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, French and Spanish respectively, were born in the late 1800’s, studied in their home countries, and are well known masters of fine art. There initial artistic styles were referred to as impressionism, the art movement of the day in Europe. However, Matisse and Picasso, much like Skunder and Gebrekristos, merged new concepts, shapes and forms to create a new art movement. Matisse drew from African artistic expressions found in his collection of Kuba cloth from the Democratic Republic of Congo, made from woven raffia palm fibers. While masks, sculptures and literature on Africa, brought to Paris museums including the Trocadéro in the early 1900’s, would inform their work substantially. The two are recognized as primary activators of a new era in European and world art history, called cubism, derived from post-impressionism combined with the treatment of African sculptures.
Trust me, this is not a piece on art history, instead it’s a commentary on how we shape the future of art in Ethiopia. One obvious dichotomy to overcome is how two brilliant sets of artists, received opposite reactions for their innovation.  Skunder and Gebrekristos were decried for using European styles while Matisse and Picasso were celebrated for cubism; a clear though not acknowledged appropriation of African art. This can be analyzed politically, socially, economically, spiritually and culturally, which I leave to you dear avid reader. My aim here is to juxtapose art history with a vision for the 21st century of fine art in Ethiopia. And though current Ethiopian artists are encouraged to explore contemporary art forms through the pedagogics of Ethiopian art schools, there is a disconnect with buyers and collectors as related to emerging contemporary artistic expression.
Now, don’t get me wrong, in art you like what you like and buy what you like. The issue here is how does a society learn to see and appreciate new art forms? Answer…exposure. It is essential to developing a market for inventive art forms from sound and video art to installations, street and rubber art.  Even good ole paintings and drawings that provoke and shock the senses, require consideration and backing.
So as art creates opportunities for idiosyncratic conversations within ourselves and with the artists, whom we sometimes strain to comprehend. The process can be daunting. Some buyers, whose wallets are flush with money, are intimidated if not embarrassed at their shortage of knowledge and after a couple of minutes in front of a novel work, they walk away with the cash remaining in their coiffeurs. This discomfort zone, has myriad effects including, loss of support for an artist and loss of a significant for the collector. Equally disturbing, it encourages artists to play it safe with subjects, colors and compositions, which sell like kolo.  So what do we do to ensure buyers purchase with confidence and artists create freely?
Public art is defined as “…any media planned and executed with the intention of being staged in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all… ”. Public art is arguably an integral part of the solution.  Though we are beginning to see change, like the 100 meter long urban art mural on the Coke Factory wall in Turhailuch, conceived by Merid Tafesse in collaboration with several artists, much more must be done. Public art allows thousands of people all walks of life to view and interact with art on a daily and organic basis. This interaction sensitizes the public and allows the eye to open, creating questions, opening minds.
So, as urban development progresses in Addis Ababa and throughout Ethiopia for that matter, leaders in public and private sector should entertain, encourage and support innovative expressions of art for traffic circles, buildings, public parks, highway walls etc. The single act of providing and promoting public art will have transformational impact on artists busting with innovation, art lovers seeking inspiration and art buyers eager to build collections.

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.


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