Greetings from Johannesburg, South Africa where I am part of the coordinating team for the 3rd African Women of Excellence Awards (AWEA) for women of African descent being recognized and celebrated for their achievements, sacrifices and struggles for freedom, development and peace in Africa and the African Diaspora. The AWEA includes various categories such as economics/business, politics, science and social affairs. Though AWEA is not exclusively held in South Africa, and does not focus on the arts, it is the second time AWEA will be hosted in Joburg, a city that is no stranger to outstanding events/initiatives. Some of the awards focused on fine art in South Africa include the Thami Mnyele Fine Arts Awards, Standard Bank Young Artists Awards, and The Arts and Culture Trust Awards. These initiatives support and recognize artists and inlcude perks such as grants, exhibitions and mentorship opportunities. All of the aforementioned are aimed at emerging and established artists who may or may not be widely recognized, but display extraordinary talent, nonetheless.
Here in Ethiopia awards come and go and frankly some of them appear to be “business” driven events, focused more on the acquisition of “sponsors” verses truly elevating and acknowledging artists. Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Abyssinia Awards, an event on the scene in Addis for the past two years offering a wide range of awards from Recognition to Laureate for artists in all fields. The event was not well organized, the categories were confusing, the process was dubious and frankly I felt embarrassed for the nominees, winners and organizers alike. Does that mean we should dismiss such effort…to the contrary.
Ethiopia is not a newcomer to such awards. The Haile Selassie Prize Trust for Fine Arts awarded distinguished recipients such as Gebre Kristos Desta and Skunder Boghossian in the 1960’s. On a side note, I was happy when the convener of the Abyssinia Awards referenced this in his opening remarks. Needless to say, Ethiopia does need such awards to memorialize the contribution of artists, warranting that history will reflect a time and space where the arts were an essential and highly appreciated component of Ethiopian social, cultural and economic development. But it must be done right, else history shall record that as well. I think the best art awards model I have seen so far includes collaboration between private and public sector with art professionals in tow. Let us take for instance the Standard Bank Young Artists Award. According to their website the award is “Designed to encourage the recipients in the pursuit of their professional careers, a key aspect of the awards is the provision of the necessary funding to create and produce a new work for the forthcoming main Festival programme, thereby guaranteeing the winner exposure to a national audience. A monetary award is also made by Standard Bank to each winner in his or her personal capacity.”
This is not rocket science folks. But to do it right means we must demand intellectual integrity, artistic sensibility, and transparency in an inclusive atmosphere of seasoned and trusted professionals. So let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water, instead let us always strive for excellence, rejecting the notion of mediocrity as the accepted standard. My experience is a mindset of acceptance and excuses yields substandard results 99% of the time. Based on this and more, my concern is two fold. The first is the obvious hard work and good intentions of Ethiopian awards organizers, if not executed well, will leave a sour taste in the mouth of sponsors who are desperately needed for such endeavors, in the absence of philanthropists and government support. On the other hand, I consider the artists who have given their all, without concern for awards, in most cases. Awards not done well, have the possibility of making mockery of the artists and placing a shadow of doubt over the awardees. This is neither nice nor fair.
Artists reflect, unpack, interpret and present a plethora of concerns which the average individual has no platform or prospect to voice, beyond that which is offered by artists. “We are a mirror for society…” says American Artist Janet Goldner, based in New York and working in Mali for over two decades. I met Janet before heading to Joburg, a guest of USA Ambassador to the African Union, Mary Beth Leonard, an avid art collector, who moved me with her keen overstanding of the important role of artists globally. Adding to that, Gebre Kristos Desta said in an interview with Sidney W. Head 1969, “…art in this country (Ethiopia) is not the road to riches…”. These statements say it all, it’s not just about money but the passion and the drive of artists. So if we truly want to honor them, let us do it right- ethically and professionally – in an effort to elevate and artists and their esteemed vocation.
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.