In the ongoing battle between Addis Abeba urban renewal and riverside development, Ethiopian artists are voicing concerns and taking proactive steps to ensure both agendas are addressed, in a balanced and beautiful manner. Dagu Dialogue #2 opened at Guramayle on May 13th to advocate the conservation of the historic home built by Fitawrari Tessera Retta in 1945. A patriot who received the land from Ras Mekonnen for his heroism, similar narratives are by many families in the homes found in the famous Piassa – Ras Mekonnen Bridge area. Guramayle is located across the street from the notable bust of Ras Mekonnen featuring the iconic water fountain and seba dereja or seventy steps where curator, Mifta Feleke, and the artist collective are taking initiatives to save the space. Opened 10 years ago, Guramayle has hosted exhibitions, talks, and special events for emerging and established artists alike. However, artists have resided and worked on the lower level of the home for over 22 years. Two of those artists, Tamrat Gezahegne and Dawit Adnew, have garnered international acclaim helping promote art out of Ethiopia. Their mixed media show is currently on exhibition in Dagu #2 through May 30th including Tamrat’s array of hand sculpted stones found on the compound and Dawit’s aesthetic expressions of concerns, frustration, hope and history.
This hope has been extended to include a wider community of the concerned ready to save the architectural relic and its surroundings. Renderings have been done by Mardet Gebreyesus and Robel Gemachew, two young architects committed to the cause. Their dynamic drawings illustrate the potential of the full integration of the site which would be in compliance with the Addis Abeba Rivers Development project plans. According to Mifta, Addis Abeba City Culture and Tourism Director, Sertsafre Sebhat, participated in Dagu#1 several months ago encouraging the artists to develop a substantial plan to save the space. Dagu#2 closes on May 30th and invites all to enjoy the exhibition while being educated on the history and current relevance of the area for Addis Abebans and all visitors to the city.
Lack of communication has been one of the biggest complaints sited by the residents of the region and city in general. Undoubtedly, all want to see the once pristine now polluted rivers get cleaned up, but the process is the issue. Well intended plans are adversely affecting a substantial number of families. According to a March 2020 report in Climate Change News, 60 year old Takale Getachew shares, “We were swimming in the rivers, played football and other games on buffers…I witnessed closely how the Ginfile and Kebena have gradually been polluted and become waste disposal sites and sewerage spillways.” While the cleanup is welcome and flora and fauna will have a place to thrive, ‘who will address the people’s lives and livelihoods,’ asks the displaced. The Beautifying Sheger Project should not devolve into a “road to hell is paved with good intentions” scenario. That said, sacrifices do have to be made and all reasonable people should agree with this sentiment. However, at odds is the methodology and manner in which this important project for the environment and future generations is being implemented. To quote Takele, “I think the new riverside development project will save the rivers…they are a living memory of “past good times” and of the city’s “identity”.”
In this regard, some have argued that two of the 15 principles of sustainable development, agreed in 2012 at the Stakeholder Forum of the Rio 20+ meeting are being ignored. Principle 9 states that, “all citizens should have access to information concerning the environment, as well as the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes.” While principle 5 says developments should ensure “individuals and societies are empowered to achieve positive social and environmental outcomes”. Reasonable. However, all things considered, sometimes even the best intentions and policies are interrupted by reality, be it pandemic, economic crisis, political strife amongst myriad issues and agendas. Artists are asking us to take heart, be proactive be involved and not sit like powerless victims but powerful assets. Dagu #2 is an opportunity to engage, share, and step away from the sometimes “urban news” that is usually betwixt facts and fables. Artists see and experience the same things as us all, just from different perspectives. It is these fresh views, approaches and understanding of current issues, across the board, that MUST be included in every stage and level of urban development in Addis, particularly. Not to mention the value artists and creatives in general are adding by exhibiting abroad and placing Ethiopia on the map as a haven for culture contemporary fine art alike. We cannot sleep on anyone or anything that will add value to our development and advancement as a nation, especially when it comes from within. Ethiopia artists and the creative community are to be lauded as feathers in the cap of Addis Abeba, the diplomatic capital of Africa.
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.