The historic Notre Dame captured the attention of the world for all the wrong reasons last week as the stunning cathedral steeple blazed, raining fire in Paris. The 18th century French Gothic building was swiftly thrust into the 21st century’s social media firestorm with comments ranging from one extreme to the next. On one hand, a deep sense of loss to humanity’s heritage and culture has resulted in pledges of over 7 million Euros for the restoration, reportedly. And French President Macron has announced his intent to rebuild, “more beautiful than before,” within five years. The other side of the discourse harshly criticized the symbolism of the basilica as well as the capitalist crowd funding mobilized to save a space that “commoners” viewed as a symbol of Catholic oppression prompting the death and destruction on the steps of the cathedral during the French Revolution. By the way it was renamed the Temple of Reason by the revolutionaries as they entered the period of enlightenment. Author Victor Hugo espoused the notion that Notre Dame represented the ingenuity, pride and history of France as well as European history, human history.
Emotions espoused by the fire caused me to reflect on the recent grand opening of the St. George Gola Art Gallery, an 18th century built home fully refurbished and now featuring the art of legendary Ethiopian contemporary Artist Zerihun Yetmgeta. The 360 square meter fine art gallery once teetered on the edge of dilapidation but was saved by Selamawit Alene, Gallery owner, who had a vision “not to make money, but to protect Ethiopian heritage.” Selamawit went on to say, she could have only opened the gallery with Artist Zerihun’s exhibition. And that she did. With curator Fasil Assefa, the show is comprised of 123 works from 1966 to 2018 on wood, paper, canvas, skin and more. “I report time like a newspaper…I did it before facebook,” he laughs. But as the old saying goes, “many a truth are said in jest…”. The exhibition reads like a chronology of Ethiopian, African and World history, recording moments in time, space and varying circumstance; captured and presented by Gesh Zerihun whose visual voice is amplified in an incredible setting fit for his art and story. “I do what I do…the past and the present and the future, that is it…I am reporting. I am reporting on politics, on culture and people.” He not only reports but he reminds and reflects and even makes assertions moving between philosophy, politics etc such as the answer to the age old question, which come first, the chicken or the egg. “The egg comes first,” says the artist as he points out the mixed media on bamboo strips entitled The Chicken or The Egg. Then there is Combat, which is a face off between bulls representing western powers and Africa. The 1985 black and white mixed media on paper depicts the confrontation of the powerful west over a seemingly cornered, yet non retreating bull. This is juxtaposed to his 2017 mixed media work entitled “Center of Attraction” where an apparition Africa floats behind colorful stripes of African motifs and deconstructed African flags. As we discussed current events he pointed out two mixed media pieces on canvas that had caught my eye, the 2005 entitled Bob 60th and a work named 2018 Get Together. It appears the latter reflects one of his many dreams found in his work…a dream of unitied Ethiopia, under the sun. The former takes me back to the reason I came to Ethiopia 14 years ago, to organize the Bob Marley 60th Birthday at Meskel Square. The 60cm x 80cm piece with background in blue hues with sun in an orb, is filled with infinite fresh strokes reminiscent of the quarter million peaceful people gathered to celebrate the reggae icon.
With over one hundred works on exhibit its best for you to see for yourself. However, as you visit the exhibition located near the Old Immigration Office, consider the resilience, confidence and focus of the 79 year-old artist who has aesthetically documented the last 6 decades of pain, joy, war, peace, love, hate in Ethiopia the rest of Africa and the world for that matter. Let us ask ourselves about our cultural values? What should public and private sector alike do to protect and promote our cultural heritage, be it in the person of an artist, like Zerihun or a landmark like the gallery or the many building dotting Addis Abeba? I close with the words of Gesh Zerihun to the new generation of artists but dare I say we could all heed these word, “ They must have strength of mind, go straight forward and be free.”
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.