“…history is bound to judge us tomorrow by what we are doing today…” His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I
“It is normal for every individual, family or generation to give way to the new by adding something to the heritage bequeathed upon it… . It is thus our sacred duty and responsibility to be cognizant of the fact that because history is bound to judge us tomorrow by what we are doing today, we must do everything in our powers to leave behind us a lasting legacy of work,” declared HIM Emperor Haile Selassie I at the inauguration of the Addis Abeba School of Fine Art in 1958, renamed for founder Artist Alle Felege-Selam. The quotes of the art-loving Emperor never cease to amaze. Though HIM’s speeches are mostly grounded in the mid 20th century, they remain timeless prophetic prose, creating a road map for progress in myriad areas. Back to the point, it should go without saying that it is also the “sacred duty” of governments to enhance and promote cultural contributions beyond mercantile interests, through the strengthening of art institutions. After all, “A purely materialistic art would be like a tree which is expected to bear fruit without flowering and to sacrifice grace and beauty for mere utility,” states HIM.
Fast forward to the 21st century. It has been almost five decades since an Ethiopian Head of State visited their prestigious art institution. That speaks volumes. However, history was made on Sunday, May 12th as the Art Aficionado Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, ensured the “rubber meets the road” in a widely reported visit to the Art School. The PM was warmly received by three generations of art professionals, representing the historic and current pedigree and pedagogy of the institution. Art School Director, Agegnehu Adane led the visit and posted a synopsis that best captures the vibes, in two words, infectious exuberance. I paraphrase the Director’s FB post, translated from Amharic to English. “At 3 in the morning (9AM) we started the discussion with Dr. Abiy about the problems of the art school … he emphasized the need to give more attention to the art school and we were all happy about the discussions held with the art professionals… .”
It sounds like a pretty standard High Official visit. Right? But wait, remember I used the adage, “rubber meets the road” I meant it literally. Agenehu further explains, “Then during lunchtime, the PM returned a second time, driving his car on this round. He brought a civil engineer for roads and ‘infrastructure’; a professional gardener and designers affirming, ‘After this I will bring all leaders who come to visit Ethiopia here.’ When he said that to me, my heart and head said, the King who didn’t take his eyes off the art school the entire time, has come back again … therefore, when you have this kind of leader, he will leave a monumental cultural wealth.” Well said, Director.
So while this week’s discourse is not my usual “build the industry and they will come” rant, it is an important commentary emphasizing the need to promote the integrity, grace, beauty and creative processes and spaces, critical to the growth and development of contemporary fine art in Ethiopia. We can only pray and/or do our part to encourage the PM to remain on this trajectory of art appreciation, ensuring the bestowment of an enriched cultural heritage to the 22nd century generation of Ethiopians and beyond. However, we must also pay keen attention to consistency as a great legacy can be diminished in the blink of an eye if the sense of responsibility and connectivity to the arts wanes and waxes like the movement of the moon. Contemporary fine art should never be compromised and should always be protected and promoted, preciously. Art is indeed a true barometer of time, place and circumstance and an important indicator of our developed African civilizations. The materials, subject matter, technique and more mark history and reveal truths sometimes edited out of books to be revealed by subsequent generations.
If this proposed attention is paid to art, across the board, we should realize an enriched creative academic and intellectual environment for artists, boosting the confidence of the talented while diminishing the odds of otherwise gifted artists flagrantly copying for “mere utility.” Students of the Art School should now strive to distinguish themselves as increased global visibility is on the horizon. And as we ponder my discourse this week, filled with other important voices, we keep the Art School and its newly found Champion, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in mind. Let us see and support the PM’s vision for “…how the school can be further set up to reflect the hopes of the country…” and let us embrace the notion of ‘normal’ duty of ‘every individual, family or generation” as stated earlier by HIM, to drive this new era for the Art School.
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.