“We consider it a matter of great importance to revise and develop the fine arts in Our country in a manner which will enable Our artists to combine the historical and traditional art of Ethiopia…” JULY 23, 1958, Qadamawi Haile Selassie.
July 23rd is a significant date for me historically, politically and personally. Starting with the latter, my 8th grandson and 13th grandchild, Legend, was born on July 23rd, 2019 at noon. Historically, July 23rd 1892 is the birth date of H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie I, born Lij Tafari Mekonnen in Ejersa Goro. (Side note: The Ethiopian Embassy in DC recognized The Emperor on 07/23/2019, the 1st since the ’74 coup.) Also on July 23rd 1958, The Emperor opened the 1st art school in Ethiopia, Addis Abeba Fine Art School, with founder Artist Alle FelegeSelam, the 1st in Africa; by Africans for Africans, stating, “We have established this institution because We consider it a matter of great importance to revise and develop the fine arts in Our country in a manner which will enable Our artists to combine the historical and traditional art of Ethiopia with the advantages of modern technical developments in the field…that they can… hold their own amidst exhibits from other countries…certainly help in the efforts to make Ethiopia known more widely as a nation fully participating in the spirit and the substance of modern civilization.”
Here is where it gets political and personal, again, hence my fearless Jamaican side emerges in “mi nah tek bak nuh chat” discourse, translated, I stand by my word. So, I began penning this piece on July 23rd and about July 23rd, when I received 2 links. The 1st, The Daily Show’s Dec. 16th 2018 clip entitled “Debate Over Europe’s Stolen African Art” by South Africa’s Funnyman, Trevor Noah; famous for his unapologetic ‘truth in jest’ style, presenting serious issues nonetheless. In the context of African art, Noah calls out Europeans as “…OG’s of racism” (Old Gangsters). He synopsizes the European perspective jokingly “…you Africans cannot protect your art, we know because we stole it from you…”. Black folks are experts at laughing off pain and persecution, the audacity of Belgium Africa Museum refusing to return art, centuries after its massacre of millions on the Continent, included.
The 2nd link, published July 23rd, 2019 on artnet.com with one of the longest titles in art history, “Ethiopia’s Art Scene Has Long Suffered From a Disinterested Government. But Shifting Politics Might Soon Make Culture a Priority” was based on an interview with and at Addis Fine Art gallery, an important venue and voice for Ethiopian fine art at home and abroad. The gist of the “analysis” by Rebecca Ann Proctor who ‘grew up in an artistic family… summers in Tuscany and Venice… sketching small streets and scenic canals… developing an appreciation for beautiful things, with a “weakness for anything Made in Italy!” is mostly cut and paste jabs on the Ethiopian political state of affairs speaking for us, stating, “Ethiopia’s art community is cautiously optimistic about its new government.”
The propaganda piece re-writes the history and current affairs of fine art in Ethiopia, painting, (excuse the pun) the government as villain and potential victor, simultaneously. Amongst other ‘mis-truths’ are Ethiopia’s “infrastructure… is inhospitable to artists” and we have only 1 art school. It appears they censored the Ethiopian interviewees, whom I know very well could not collude in such fabrications. A quick web search could have informed Artnet, but in the Trump era of “alternative facts” Artnet, of French origin, a German publicly traded company with reported revenues of 17.3 million EUR in 2015, may have questionable interests. Rebecca has mis-diagnosed and even worst offers the dealers misguided solutions, namely tax breaks. She also focuses on communication disruptions in ET, especially disturbing for the social media addicts, not to make light of it, but did you know only “…62 percent of American households had “high connectivity,” meaning desktop or laptop or smartphone, and a broadband Internet subscription…” according to America’s census.gov? “Becky” asks, “why does it have to be so hard?” Seriously? Did you know the starving artists notion was coined in the late 1800’s in Europe? Imjussayin…
Fine art is a luxury business, PERIOD. I consult with artist’s whose average artwork is priced at 5K USD or 150,000 Birr a piece, a major chunk of a yearly salary for a high ranking Ethiopian gov employee. Average tax for galleries and art consultants bracket is 35% in this luxury biz. For the record, galleries pay artists 40 to 50% of sale price. To ensure a thriving industry and not just to benefit those of us complaining as we sip white wine and catch flights to art fairs around the world; I ask the ET gov to Please provide art education – kg to 8th grade, spaces for public access to art (including public art) and classes/curriculum for art writers/critics; buy art and ensure policies and laws which enhance a grow our industry; offer incentives for those giving back through corporate social responsibility such as Zoma and finally Please continue to leave creativity and freedom of expression to artist, as you’ve done over atleast my 14 years in ET. To Europeans: Please return all stolen art; provide the reparations needed for Ethiopia of Ethiopia and all African countries to boost our fine art industry, post colonial era, before sharing your ideas to our problems, then we can talk.
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.