If I were asked to describe the Ethiopian contemporary fine art movement late 1940’s to 1960’s, I would simply say FREE. Little known Ethiopian artists, such as Daniel Tuafe, Berhane Mehari and Woldeselassie Haile Michael, depicted heavy political and social messages in varying styles from realistic to surrealistic, relevant to date in both form and content. Their work was neither defined nor driven by markets, cultural commodifiers or western acuities of African art. Instead integrity, truth and aspiration poured from these artists’ souls as they articulated their passion, pride, love of self and one’s space; their universal truth. By the 1970’s the Dergue would enforce a policy of art for propaganda while censoring artists’ expression; a common tactic of communism to reinforce state driven ideology. I often recall the look in the eyes of one of my dear friends who shared stories of survival as an artist under the military junta in Ethiopia; painting from the heart by night then quickly covering it up so as to avoid arrest if authorities knew of the self expression taking place in the studio.
Now in the 21st century, with freedom and even encouragement of expression; diverse platforms including social media and galleries going international by selling to foreigners at home and abroad, Ethiopian art is now being “recognized.” But WHAT is being recognized, WHO is doing the recognizing and is that process helping to shape and propel a vibrant diverse art movement or is it containing and therefore delaying the development and potential for freedom of the Ethiopian and generally African art movement? Personally, I think we should strive to give artists the benefit of doubt as it relates to the subject, technique, media and motivation of their work. However, as exibitions begin to morph in my mind from curating to content and outstanding shows become increasingly rare, I wonder if the “recognized” are predicated on other’s expectations if not demand. I wonder if artists are being given the space to truly feel free as they balance livelihood.
Beyond the handful of buyers at Sotheby’s paying six to seven figures for Basquiats and Julie Mheretu’s works which disrupts or at minimum leads to reconsideration; the majority of foreign buyers are tourists and short or long term residents wishing to memorialize their pleasant experiences in Africa. These sales are important for the market in myriad ways as we do tire of the media depiction of war, famine and Ebola. Further, they add to the economy of art while triggering conversations that reflect on the richness of African culture and society. But the space in between is an incredibly important yet subdued space, in terms of recognition, by galleries, buyers and art lovers alike. We need fearless fortitude in the industry; verses the current trepidation for art that questions identity politics, immigration, environmental degradation, capitalism, foreign meddling on African affairs and the list of contemporary social and political ills goes on. Woke Artists many times subscribe these as vestiges of western footprints prevalent since the carving up of the continent. Hence, their ability to create and communicate these issues read as subversive and not in line with economic, social and political comfort zones that do account for western agendas. That is until the artist or their work is recognized by the west so with their permission, we can now jump on the band wagon of “disruption and counter culture is cool.”
My point is simple or not so… in the words of reggae artist Buju Banton, “I want to rule my destiny…”. African fine art is a new and viable arena with safe spaces for expression and determining one’s destiny, particularly here in Ethiopia. In this 21st century Africans at the helm of the fine art industry on the continent should not allow the proverbial tail to wag the dog. Gallerists, curators, dealers and all those who interface between artists and buyers can call the shots. They can begin to find a space for exhibitions that express freely and proudly African emotions of self-determination, resistance and empowerment in ways that defy their description of art out of Africa. Africans in the art industry should not place art from Africa in the space where it is viewed or handled as another raw material, requiring refinement in the West to be returned to Africa with augmented value, determined by the West. Instead Africans on the selling and promotion side of fine art should be encouraged to build an art industry for and by Africans in which we also have a say as to who and what is recognized. However, as freedom and confidence go hand in hand and as we are making up this industry as we go along, in the absence of rules, laws, policies and procedures; it is the perfect time for Africans to create the industry we want, on our terms. This includes diverse visual voices for society to view and choose from verses offering the same safe predictable paintings which do little to provoke the mind much less my pocket.
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.