Ethiopia, the land of daily miracles, never ceases to amaze, and trust that every time you think you have it figured out…you really don’t. Case in point, the month of October in this fast changing nation sealed with the appointment of the First Female Supreme Court President, Justice Meaza Ashenafi. That announcement was preceded by confirmation of visa on arrival for all African passport holders, effective November 9th. Retorts to both span the spectrum from bravo to ‘bout time! For those of us in the arts and culture sector, these two landmark occurrences may prove to be important game changers for the art industry.
Collectors interested in cloth from the Congo, carvings from Benin or Shona stone sculptures from Zimbabwe can usually travel next door to Kenya where myriad offerings of such are available. Yet in the Diplomatic capital of Africa, seat of the African Union and 55 Member States you will be hard-pressed to find any of the above, much less contemporary fine art from the Continent.
It is my hope that the opening of Ethiopia to the rest of Africa will encourage artists and galleries alike to increase cultural exchange through exhibitions, art talks and residencies. This could precipitate a movement in the capital towards a true Pan African center for African arts; placing Ethiopia on the map, again. African artists of all elks can visit for inspiration, collaboration and even creation, as the country offers incredible experiences, diverse peoples and sites from land, lake and city-scapes. Ethiopian artists, art schools, studios and galleries may also expand their artistic lexicon through exposure to the works and creative philosophies of the continent; absent in current art pedagogies taught in Ethiopia.
Where the courts are concerned, making the President of the High Court a woman does not address the numerous legal issues on the horizon related to art and commerce. However, the fact that the Government of Ethiopia has said, jurisprudence is essential to progress and in recognition has appointed a ‘non usual suspect’ and activist to head the Courts speaks volumes. The slow but steady growing Ethiopian arts sector has yet to place issues such as intellectual property, copyright, licensing, commercial trade of art on the front burner. Frankly, I am not even sure if these issues have even made it into the kitchen. But mark my word that sooner rather than later, with the Continental Free Trade Act and relaxation of borders connecting the continent; a plethora of legal issues may find their way to High Courts in the near future. This may seem irrelevant but every creation of an artist has both a monetary and intrinsic value. That said the value of the artists’ work must be protected from theft, plagiarism or counterfieters. Additional buyers, licensee and collector’s rights will also play a role in the legal treatise on art, especially with the rising value of fine art in Ethiopia. Finally there are the issues of artifacts stolen from the country during the Italian invasion that may resort to legal remedy if diplomacy fails. A reliable court with a high moral compass must therefore be intact.
As a creative consultant/curator I connect everything to art. As an activist, the arts provide a platform for advocacy. As a jurist my foreseeability lens is relevant to art and as a wo-manager I defend the rights of artists and their creativity. True story. In May 2010, my phone rang. It was my dear friend and brother, Father of Ethio-Jazz, Dr. Mulatu Astatke. “Desi-eye, I need to talk to you…I hear Tizita is being sampled…I didn’t give permission…”. Me, “Ok, I will make a call…”. The song was “As We Enter” on the “Distant Relatives” album by Damian Marley and Nas, produced by Universal Records. Long story short the issue was addressed through knowledge of the law, existing principles for music publishing and a deep respect for the artist (that is once the caliber of the artist was clear and subsequent ramifications for IP violations were noted). But how many artists are established enough to create an immediate response and how many artists or their representatives know somebody, or know somebody who knows somebody? Ethiopia is at a stage where the arts sector requires implementation of existing laws that protect artists while creating new relevant policies that ensure a thriving commercial trade in fine art and the arts in general. With Ethiopia creating ease for a new and exciting corridor for trade, commerce and cultural exchange, a pro-active approach led by artists with jurists and other relevant stakeholders is essential.
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.