“…I’m not boasting, I’m toasting…” Bob Marley
Jetlag got the best of me last week as I began my 3-month tour to the US and Jamaica, but the good news is the next few columns will be share my escapades. My week of activities began in Chicago with a host of events organized by Gallery Guichard (GG), the leading Black owned art gallery in Bronzeville, a historic Black area in Chicago. The owners, Andre and France Guichard and Stephen Mitchell were introduced to me via phone exactly one year ago by Ambassador Erieka Bennett the Head of Mission for the Diaspora African Forum (DAF). In December 2018 they boarded flights to Ethiopia to explore the art scene and to sign artist Merid Tafesse to their roster of artists from the African Diaspora and the Continent. We hosted them in Ethiopia for ten days taking them to ancient and contemporary spaces that evidenced the heights of Ethiopian artistry. Lalibella, monasteries on Lake Tana and the Addis Abeba University Alle School of Fine Art were therefore naturally on the list of places to see. They departed Ethiopia overwhelmed and exhilarated carrying over 50 of Merid’s original works on paper, promising to meet in six months for a major solo exhibition of Merid’s work in Chicago. So said so done.
On June 4th Merid and I arrived in Chicago and were met by a luxury car that whisked us away to an incredible 2 bedroom apartment, 2 blocks from President Obama’s home in Hyde Park. The space was filled with local artists works and was to be our home for 6 days. Before we could settle in we were given a quick tour of the area, including ofcourse the barricaded Obama block, residence of Minister Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson’s PUSH Foundation’s headquarters. Then it was on to take a peak at GG, but only a peak as their policy is to “…not let the artists see the display until it is perfect…” says Andre. As we did a slow drive by of GG peaking into the large glass windows surrounding the space, we noticed several film production trucks. Hmmm…turns out the Illinois Lottery selected GG to shoot a commercial while Merid’s work is up, coincidentally. After a convertible car ride around Chicago and dinner downtown, we basically begged for a peak at the gallery. What we experienced in the 200 square meters space devoted to 35 of Merid’s art works was just awesome!
First of all the beautifully renovated 1940’s building is devoted to over 11,000 square meters of space for 4 distinguished gallery areas, artist in residence apartments and lofts with several amenities. Merid’s show was displayed in the main gallery and by June 5th a collector’s preview for a dozen or so people became a flood of fifty who insisted on a chance to pick their piece first. So said so done, red dots sprung up, indicating sales. By the 6th, the actual opening day, excitement was palpable and radio interviews, 4 meter high banners in the gallery window and hundreds of fliers had been distributed including to the local Ethiopian restaurants announcing the coming of the Ethiopian blue blood, King of Charcoal, Merid Tafesse under the title Stream of Consciousness.
Insisting that Merid speak of his ties to the House of King Solomon and Queen Saba, as documented by HIM Emperor Haile Selassie I in His autobiography, gallery owners stated, “Everybody needs to know this…we have been told lies and disconnected from our history and greatness and that you are here and now and creating works of art that touch people across the board is important. Black people need to know the truth and we need to know Ethiopian history because it speaks to the greatness of all Black people.” Merid replies, “I was told all my life especially by people in the art industry at home not to speak about the lineage and one artist even told me he had lost some respect for me because I began to declare who I am about 5 years ago when I located my line, the 7th child of King Sahle Selassie, Princess Ayahelushem is my great great grandmother.” This means Merid is the 6th gen direct descendant of King Sahle Selassie. Bob Marley chants, “I’m not boasting…I’m toasting…”. Well Merid was toasted for being the complete package presented in the predominantly Black community of buyers who have expansive collections, debunking the myth that blacks don’t buy art. Additionally, the President of the Chicago Art Institute, James Rondeau and MCA Board President Allen Turner were the first to show up expressing admiration for the art, stating “we loved everything we saw”.
The warm welcome was about lineage and history and reflected how Ethiopia has educated and prepared artists to ‘…compete on the world stage…’ according to the words of the Emperor upon opening the Art School. We are honored and humbled by the reception and personally as wife of the artist and his womanager, I say follow your vision and in the words of Merid “keep honest”.
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.