“We have always been modern.” Etege Menen Asfaw

Melkam Addis Amet dear readers! With the New Year comes resolutions; one of mine is to support the process of giving credit where credit is due. The purpose? To recognize and record significant people, places, events and institutions contributing to the development of the arts in Ethiopia and Africa. I begin by applauding an artist I’ve previously mentioned, Elias Sime, 2019 Smithsonian’s National Museum of Africa Art Awardee. Elias is one of two recipients receiving the award whose unique and detailed work; emerging from historic and futuristic magi-nations, where everything is worthy to be presented and preserved; will be displayed in the Smith’s entry hall from mid- October for the viewing of thousands of visitors daily. The other winner is Nigerian Njideka Akyunyili Crosby, said to “connect Lagos to Los Angeles” through her intense colorful mixed-media paintings and collage. National Museum of African Art’s Director, Gus Casley-Hayford, said, “Both artists focus on the personal and societal impact of connection as they work with materials evocative of contemporary renewal, reuse and hybridity.”
Ethiopian artists have also been connecting us through art for decades on a platform provided in Addis by one of Ethiopia’s leading and arguably oldest partners in contemporary art, Alliance Ethio-Francaise. On September 19th “To Muse…”, a fine art exhibition curated by Mifta Zeleke, will open to the public presenting selected works from a nearly 30 year old collection of Ethiopian art possessed by the Alliance. Mifta writes in his curatorial note, “The exhibition couldn’t provide a full picture of what was exhibited in the space within the stated time period … some donated paintings are lost or migrated whereas some couldn’t actually represent the overall notions of the caliber of Ethiopia’s modern and contemporary art. But, this collection by far remains to be one of the vital means to examine the exhibition history of Ethiopia’s contemporary art.” Lost or migrated…hmmm? The curator goes on to highlight some pivotal Alliance solo shows including Tadesse Mesfine’s “Gulit”, 2001; Bekele Mekonnen’s “Enquokilish” 2004; and Dawit Abebe’s “X-Privacy”, 2009. I too invoke my pen prowess adding three of my favorite artists’ solos at Alliance including Daniel Taye’s, 2015 and Getachew Yosef’s, 2005; which by the way, was my introduction to Alliance during my first year in Ethiopia organizing Africa Unite – Bob Marley’s 60th Birthday. Finally, before my time, was Prince Merid Tafesse’s “Wood, Fire, Charcoal” in 2001/2, a turning point in Ethiopian art history where Merid, dubbed ‘The King of Charcoal’, declared charcoal and drawing mainstream media; both were usually reserved for studies. Mifta is known for curating dynamic shows and I am certain this will be no exception, especially given the 40 artists in “To Muse…”.
We have all been concerned and connected in one way or another to the ethnic violence in South Africa, but artists continue to drive conversations through works expressing the plethora perspectives of pain, fear, frustration, and helplessness. For those in South Africa this weekend, you can check out Latitude Art Fair which is being promoted as “a new platform for African art in international times – a niche-focused art fair seek(ing) to build local art audiences and promote African art…”. Executive Director, Lucy MacGarry states, “By African, we mean anyone who has a meaningful connection to Africa and the diaspora, and by international, we mean the endless permutations of trans-geographic relationships – rather than the reinforcement of values entrenched in European and American economic centres.” Whoah! Part of the 5 woman team, Business Development Director, Makgati Molebatsi adds, “…the backbone of this initiative – belongs to artists, curators, collectors, and art lovers who have felt for some time that the art market as it exists today does not yet have a place for them.” This is refreshing. Why? Truth be told, the majority of Africans still feel excluded from the contemporary art scene.
Finally I close with a reading recommendation entitled, EMPRESS MENEN CHRONICLES: An African Woman’s Journal of History and Culture edited by Dr. Asantewaa Oppong Wadie and Kwado Oppong. I was gifted the book this summer while in Chicago, but had a little time to fully read the “chronicling of the African woman’s experiences from ancient times to present” according to Dr. Asantewaa’s preface. What I loved most about the book, especially in view of the Ethiopian New Year and giving credit where credit is due, is the profile and pictures presented on Etege Menen Asfaw, wife of Qadamawi Haile Selassie. The Empress is not often written about however the book reminds us of her ‘savvy’ when it come to responding to media in defense of Ethiopia. A brilliant one liner response to journalist Joan Orth in 1955 asking “…if any of the women of her nation were also modern…?” Empress Menen sharply replied, “All of them. We have always been modern.” Bravo! Giving credit where credit is due, for 2012, let us proudly recognize and appreciate our achievements and progress as we strive for even more, daily.
May all your visions for health, wealth and happiness be created and continued.

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.