Ethiopia appears to be fairing well, in terms of managing those infected and who have perished from Covid19 and campaigns using visuals and jingles seem to be getting the message across to most. However, the management of the plethora of related issues and the aftermath are yet to be seen and at this point, anyone’s guess. So as we prepare for the “next” new way of life in Addis Abeba and wider urban areas of Africa for that matter, I wonder what we miss the most and will do first when allowed? Generally, I think it’s safe to say we miss the freedom of movement. Something as simple as visiting family and friends; participating at places of worship and fellowship and of course entertainment, from exhibitions to special events, all top the list. However the much taken for granted walk, especially in a walking city like Addis, is right up there with top ten things missed. This in mind and with new social tropes including 2 meters distancing, masks and no shakes, hugs or kisses, how will we interact and entertain ourselves, safely, while conscious of the fact that this novel virus and all its packaged propaganda has unleashed a host of economic, cultural, political and social complications. As usual, I turn to art for one aspect of the answer.
When the city of several million residents take to the streets of Addis, before we know it, what will and should we see? Research indicates that Public art can be transformative in the lives of urban dwellers on several levels. According to a dossier by African Studies Center Leiden (ASCL) that distinguishes between monuments, street art and public art they share the following. Monuments such as Emperor Menelik II in the center of Piassa, the iconic Abyssinian lion at National Theater or Delachin near the main post office are said to “propagate a certain view of the past and are therefore often places of contestation…the current post-colonial trajectories of African countries, such places are often politicized as they are a means to redefine identity, interpret history, and chart a path for the future.” ASCL notes that street art on the other hand, such as graffiti or the colorful motifs near Meskel Square or on the Addis Abeba University campus tend to include “non government… funded independent posters, and stickers, and other art forms of street art, (and) are ideal ways to confront – rather than promote – governments.” Then there is Public Art, which according to ASCL researchers “is interwoven in daily life…”. The current trend in public art, previously expressive in a visual landmark or aesthetic statement, is moving more towards “being expressive in social and local context as a collective anchor-point” changing the way art is viewed and received by daily passer-byes whether pedestrians or in vehicles.
In this booming and diverse international city, the diplomatic capital of Africa, I have always questioned the lack of public art. ASCL offers, “The change of format and ways how public art communicates or is inserted in the city, changed also the expectations of audiences, which see public art as a medium that can help develop senses of spatial identity, contribute to community needs and promote social change. In contrast to previous periods, when public art inserted socio critical messages in the aesthetic format, it is now being justified also on the basis of its social engagement and wider ‘pro-active role’ in the local community, city and region.” So, you dear avid readers must know where I am going with this. When we hit the streets of Addis with little desire to be cooped up ANYWHERE ANYTIME soon, we will be outdoors. We will be walking and meeting outside. We will see new buildings, like mushrooms and shinkut that have popped up and are plentiful. However wouldn’t it be wonderful to see fresh oversized sculptures and murals amidst green spaces…made of metal, glass, acrylic, bronze, rubber, even paper and any material for that matter and in any form. Knowing that some will remain for centuries and some will be washed away over time. It doesn’t matter if we dislike it, love it and wonder what da…its about the experience its about the range of emotions, aspirations and opinions that cause us to think, talk laugh or simply shake our heads. It’s about using space to share stories that are typical to Addis and how we see things. It’s about the people of Addis, who deserve if not need a new view and perspective on life as we all try to figure out what’s next.
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.