Habari gani…what’s the news?! Today’s Kujichagalia, the second day of Kwanzaa, a seven-day African American cultural holiday, widely celebrated from December 26 to January 1st. Dr. Maulana Karenga, a California State University Professor, initiated the holiday in 1966 with intent to raise African- American pride, self-sufficiency and consciousness. Kwanzaa has become a cultural mainstay throughout the African Diaspora, celebrated in some African countries. The seven principles of Kwanzaa, colorfully commemorated each year, include: 1. Umoja (Unity) 2. Kujichagulia (Self-determination), 3. Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) 4. Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) 5. Nia (Purpose) 6. Kuumba (Creativity) and 7. Imani (Faith); essential principles for the holistic prosperous African. Whether you celebrate Kwanzaa or not, the principles are relevant to all Africans, particularly self-determination, affirming the right and responsibility to define and decide on one’s destiny, declaring with pride, culture and heritage. So important is this notion that the African Union enshrined it in Agenda 2063, Aspiration 5, “…envision(ing) an Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, shared values and ethics…pre-eminent and inculcate(ing) the spirit of Pan Africanism…”. It’s timely and encouraging that the African Union has declared 2021 “Year of The Arts, Culture and Heritage” focused on “establishing a robust and sustainable creative industries sector…”. While this is in line with Kwanzaa principles 4 and 6, economics and creativity, respectively, our culture also serves us in the highest social and psychological manner.
Even for the greatest optimist, 2020 has been filled with enormous challenges worldwide. The convergence of Covid19, protests, locusts, military action, and more… leading to loss of minds, lives and livelihoods has been numbing. My family was not spared. My 25-year-old healthy daughter survived a massive heart attack after Doctors to use the defibrillator 6 times to keep her with us. One of her names in Nia and indeed she has a purpose. But there were many such stories of youth to Elders whose mental and physical health were pushed to the limits. And how have we Africans handled 2020 challenges? Culture has been center stage. For instance, our cultural foods, from Ethiopia’s nutritious injera and spicy wots to Ghana/West Africa’s tasty egusi and warm fufu, they’ve kept our tastebuds, hearts and bellies content. While our traditional cultural rites have helped us manage the sorrow of illness and death within our families and communities. However, one understated aspect of culture is literally next to us, at all times, our cultural cloths, scarves and blankets; specifically, the ever so therapeutic gabi. The comforting Ethiopia handwoven cotton blanket drapes the shoulders of the elders, the sick, the cold and even the lonely; providing a level of indescribable comfort and healing, but maybe that’s just me. Additionally, the sight of kuta and netela wearing masses, gliding through the early mornings filling the streets with a sense of cultural pride, dignity and well-being, give optical re-assurance ‘…everything’s gonna be alright’ according to catchy Marley melody. So, it was no surprise to find a trend of Ethiopian artists who chose textiles to express their ideas and our experiences with textiles.
Kirubel Melke’s Alliance Ethio-Francaise exhibition running till January 1st, is simply outstanding. The Addis Ababa University grad is an Ethiopian based visual artist whose work is informed by his garment factory worker mom who has inspired his body of work which Kirubel states is “… a marker for daily life…explor(ing) education, social injustice…tradition and modernity, presenting pressing issues relevant to contemporary Ethiopian culture.” His quilting techniques are expressed in neat careful yet confident and free hand stitching with a selection of unlikely media such as a sea of denim pants pockets; abstract contemporary designs and figurative fabric cutouts…all on stretched canvases. Personally, each piece told a story, begged for attention and closer and further looks, to investigate not just the artist’s technique but his perspective of life. His style has been well received by art lovers for his fresh, warm, inviting and unique approach. Though contemporary culture, depicting messages about family, urbans spaces, lovers and even people with wasteful ways; I felt the energy of the art. I felt the warmth and ingenuity of cultural cloths being presented in such a contemporary manner; interrogating social issues yet providing visual relief during these difficult times.
I then visited Guaramayne Art Center in Piassa to find yet another exhibition based on textiles. Meron Hailu, Addis Abeba based artist and educator holds an MA in Textile Design from Duksung Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea. Meron asserts, “My main focus is the human experience, is values and ideologies that shape the experience in the landscape one lives in. I chose to portray landscape features personal and cultural meanings….both as a unity of experiences of nature and an aesthetic form…”. The intricate layers and myriad textured threads from fine and soft to rough and robust mirror life and the juxtaposition of human experiences. Meron’s artistic articulation, what she refers to as, “..the interaction and sum of all these experiences…” are expressed through convivial color and contrast reminiscent of the simple joys of sunrise and sunset over an urban or rural village with space and commentary on the plethora complex relationships between people and nature, symbolic and figurative in a range of sizes.
Suffice it to say, culture matters, the arts matter and our individual and collective expression of feelings is healthy and should be welcome. Whether we are creators or observers, there is a space in which we should all become curators of our lives as we exercise self-determination and a desire to be better, stronger, healthier, happier, wiser, wealthier and kinder to ourselves and each other. May you all enjoy Kwanzaa and all the different holidays you and yours hold near and dear during this season, and may our culture usher us into 2021 with a sense of purpose, pride and love. Happy to weave another column for you my avid readers, whom I have missed so much.
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.