ART, ALWAYS AT THE CENTER

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“Landscape With Rainbow,” an 1859 painting by Robert Seldon Duncanson, preeminent civil war period Black artist whose ancestors were freed enslaved Africans, was the pick for the inauguration gift for the newest US President Joe Biden and his VP Jamaican-East Indian-Black American, Kamala Harris. The presentation took place in the halls of the Capitol, part of a tradition hand in hand with the transfer of power in America. Selected by First Lady and Educator Dr. Jill Biden, the landscape depicts cows heading home – grazing as they go – alongside a pristine pond with a hopeful couple following behind; all headed towards a white-washed home tucked between the trees at the foot of the rainbow. Safe to say this message of a promising place just over the hill, after a long journey speaks to the inspiration and hope ALL are seeking after an un-describable four years that impacted the world. This work of art is a speaks volumes as does Biden’s entire collection curated in minutes of swearing in to include busts of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights activists Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and Cesar Chaves. Also within hours of being sworn in was the rescinding of over a dozen Trump executive orders including travel bans from Ethiopian ally  Eritrea, near neighbor Tanzania, and Libya, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan. His collection of art gives us a clue into Biden’s mind and priorities.

Ethiopia’s art is also well known for memorializing our state of affairs and aspirations. Hailu Kifle has done just that through his exhibition “YehmahtemNetsebraq” (loosely translated – Reflection of A Stamp) closing at the Alliance Ethio-Francais this weekend. The 36 year old artist, born and bred in Desie, merges historical heads and events with current leaders and concerns through a cacophony of seals, meticulously positioned amidst muted paint pigments. Traditionally, the use of seals or stamps in Ethiopia were not only to identify but to certify establishing origin, status and magnitude. Hailu has managed to bring us ALL these qualities in this body of work with Monarchs in the middle, marking a proud and rich heritage that may be long gone but never forgotten. Just as the tinges of red around a shield surrounded by overturned chairs connote tumult; Hailu’s symbol filled works boasts proud lions and ornate Emperors of substantial size  which draw viewers in. He also presents a completely contemporary opus on covid19, filled with simple silhouettes of familiar figures either masked, plagued or protected… Symbols matter and every work of Hailu’s reminds us, lest we forget, that our history is inextricably tied to our future and identity.

Adding to the voice of art and aspirations of Black people and ALL for that matter, was poet laureate, Amanda Gorman. The 22 year old Black Girl Magic poster child, became an overnight international star upon the reading of her “THE HILL WE CLIMB” at the inauguration of the President Biden and VP Harris. Almost simultaneously, US Ambassador Michael Rainey was bidding farewell to Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde, completing his Trump appointed term. An excerpt from Amanda’s poem sums up best the sentiment for the future, notwithstanding the challenges. I leave you with an excerpt from her poem and pray that we may ALL be moved by her fitting words that are not exclusively relevant to the US experience.

Excerpt from THE HILL WE CLIMB by Amanda Gorman

“And yes we are far from polished

far from pristine

but that doesn’t mean we are

striving to form a union that is perfect

We are striving to forge a union with purpose

To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and

conditions of man

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us

but what stands before us

We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,

we must first put our differences aside

We lay down our arms

so we can reach out our arms

to one another

We seek harm to none and harmony for all

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:

That even as we grieved, we grew

That even as we hurt, we hoped

That even as we tired, we tried

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious

Not because we will never again know defeat

but because we will never again sow division

Scripture tells us to envision

that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

And no one shall make them afraid

If we’re to live up to our own time

Then victory won’t lie in the blade

But in all the bridges we’ve made

That is the promised glade

The hill we climb

If only we dare…”

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.