#Ethiopia’s extraordinary art


(Posted 21st May 2020)

Ethiopia’s artists are winning accolades at the world’s most esteemed exhibitions. Yet while Ethiopian art might appear to have leapt into the limelight, it has in fact grown out of a tradition of art that goes back millennia.

Art, in the ancient kingdom of D’mt, was rock art. Cut into caves and carved across cliffs are engravings and paintings of people and animals estimated to be between 3,000 and 9,000 years old. A few gems survive. At Sheppe near Dilla, artless images of cows thought to be 5,000 years old cover a cliff on the banks of a river; Porc-epic Cave near Dira Diwa, probably a seasonal hunting base, is adorned with figures of people and animals believed to be about 5,000 years old; and Laga Oda, also near Dira Diwa, is decorated with simplistic shapes of people, cows, goats, sheep and symbols of the sun at least 5,000 years old.

The temple of Yeha, built in around 700 BC and believed to have been the capital of the D’mt kingdom, is the oldest remaining standing structure in Ethiopia. Hieroglyphics, fertility symbols and geometric patterns of animals including Ethiopia’s endemic ibex are carved into the walls.

From around 500 BC, stelae were carved in several locations around southern Ethiopia. Thought to be pagan grave markers, these were engraved with human faces, rams’ horns and symmetrical designs. Of the nine stelae sites in the Gurage zone, the one at Tiya, while not the oldest being only around 900 years old, is the largest and most detailed. Shields, swords and daggers represent warriors; phallic symbols signify uncircumcised youths; and breasts and jewellery denote women.

The Axumite Empire that dominated the region from the 1st century BC, after the fall of the Kingdom of D’mt, produced the tallest and most ornate stelae. The largest of these, at Axum, standing 24m and weighing 160 tonnes, dates to the 4th century AD. Highly ornate, these stelae are markers for underground burial chambers and are engraved with rows of false doors and windows.

Harar, the Islamic walled city in the east of Ethiopia, is celebrated for its rich traditions of arts and crafts. While Harar was founded around 1,000 years ago, its culture of Arabic architecture, sumptuous vestments, ornate manuscripts and elaborate jewellery is rooted in much more ancient Arabic traditions. Basketry, a craft for which Harari women are judged and revered, is perhaps most representative of Harar. Girls start learning the techniques at the age of 13; the most intricate basket a girl makes she presents to her mother-in-law before her wedding. Woven of dried and dyed grasses, baskets adorn the walls of traditional Harari houses, giving each house the appearance of a living museum.

These crafts still exist today. Ethiopia’s fabrics, baskets and jewellery are some of the most intricate and elegant in the world. Constantly developing and redesigning their styles, artisans use traditional techniques while continuing to produce new designs.

The introduction of Christianity in the 4th century AD transformed art – and life – in Ethiopia. From this period, the majority of paintings are religious and churches evolved as the artistic centres of the country. Highly stylised paintings of Bible stories in vivid colours became the norm. Angels are represented by winged heads; people have large almond-shaped eyes; non-Christians are seen from the side with only half a face. First producing illuminated manuscripts and ornamental Bibles, artists progressed to huge murals sweeping across the walls of churches.

Some of the oldest surviving murals are found in Bete Maryam, one of the eleven famed rock-hewn churches of Lalibela; the church was built in the 12th century during the time of King Lalibela and its paintings date back to that time. Believed to be the oldest of Lalibela’s churches, Bete Maryam’s paintings include an attractively raw depiction of St George killing the dragon, as well as carvings of the Lalibela Cross and the Star of David. While the churches cut into the stark cliffs of Tigrey are older, many dating back to the 4th century, the paintings on their walls were not added until the 16th century. The church of Abuna Yemata Goh, notoriously accessed by a climb up a sheer rockface, has a sphere of the nine saints who came to Ethiopia in the 5th century and were instrumental in the growth of Christianity on its domed roof, and walls filled with characters from the Old Testament as well as some delightfully frisky horses. Petros and Paulos Church and Yohannes Maequddi Church, likewise cut into Tigrey’s cliffs and pinnacles, have walls covered in charmingly naive Biblical characters, animals and birds.

The monasteries of Lake Tana have some of the most vivid paintings found in Ethiopia. Dating from around the 17th century, these circular monasteries have dramatic patchworks of Bible stories coating their walls. At Ura Kidane Mihret on the Zege Peninsula, the paintings include graphic depictions of the agonising ways early saints lost their lives with piercings, stabbings, burnings and the severing of limbs complete with plenteous fountains of blood; also here is the baby John the Baptist drinking milk from the udder of a goat.

Narga Selassie on Deq Island also has a wonderful array of wall paintings with devils leering, saints suffering and Bible stories aplenty. The Virgin Mary, revered as a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, comes to the forefront at around this time, with numerous depictions of her being crowned and feted; Ethiopian saints, too, start making an appearance in the paintings of this century. Dating to a similar time, Debre Berhan Selassie in nearby Gondar not only has walls filled with paintings but boasts a roof swathed in winged angels.

Highly decorated crosses are another form of Ethiopian art. Each region has their own unique form and style, recognisable to all Ethiopians, the most elaborate of which is the Lalibela cross. These include large processional crosses mounted on wooden staffs and smaller crosses to be carried in the hands of priests, as well as the miniature crosses so many Ethiopian men and women wear on chains around their necks.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that Ethiopia’s art blossomed beyond the religious. When it did, however, the results were dramatic.

In 1941, the Ministry of Education created the Fine Arts section. What became the Ministry of Education and Fine Arts was first headed by Abebe Wolde Giorgis; while he and some of his contemporaries made several attempts to initiate a government funded art school, it wasn’t until 1958 that the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design was established. Ale Felege Selam, recently returned from the USA where he attained a BA in Fine Arts at the Institute of Art in Chicago, was instrumental in its establishment. He became its director and is recognised to this day as Ethiopia’s most influential teacher and mentor of artists, and one of the earliest advocates of Ethiopian art.

Of the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor, said: 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.

The school offered drawing, painting, sculpture, commercial art and art education. In 1975, a year after Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed and the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia – otherwise known as the Derg – took power, the school broadened its curriculum and upgraded its entry requirements. In 1998, the school was affiliated to Addis Ababa University and shortly afterwards started offering a BA in Fine Arts.

Amongst the plethora of artists emerging at that time, a few names stand out. Yohannes Gedamu has been described as the father of Ethiopian abstract art; his pioneering and vibrant art has been exhibited in galleries in Germany, the USA, South Africa and of course Ethiopia. Gebre Kristos Desta is known as the father of Ethiopia’s modern art; the gallery in his name, in the grounds of Addis Ababa University, continues to showcase his art and that of other modern artists. Tadesse Wolde Aregay not only created art that’s exhibited in galleries around the world, but also specialised in art conservation and restoration. Zerihun Yetmgeta worked with mixed media, fusing contemporary themes and traditional forms including rock art and religious crafts. Multiple award-winning Skunder Bogassian was the first African to be commissioned by the United Nations to design a first day cover for a UN stamp, and later contributed to the Wall of Representation at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC.

These artists chose themes that were diverse and original. Some artists depicted glamourous Ethiopian society, others preferred bustling crowds in market and urban settings, while still more branched out into expressionism and surrealism.

Many of this band of modern artists fled Ethiopia as the Derg’s regime became increasingly repressive. However, it was during the years of the Derg that some of the most dramatic changes occurred in the field of art. In the 1980s and ’90s, Addis Ababa University was filled with teachers from Russia, Poland, East Germany and more, who shared their cultures, ideology and ideas. Art was revolutionised.

Tesfaye Hiwet Hidaru, owner of a gallery in Washington DC exhibiting West African art, returned to his homeland of Ethiopia and was stunned by the talent, knowledge and capacity of local artists. Expecting the almond eyes and expressionless faces of traditional religious art, he found instead innovative designs, abstract sculptures and collages using a startling wealth of materials. But with no market structure, there was nowhere for artists to sell their work. He saw artists touting their paintings on the streets, unable to raise 15 USD for works that his artist’s eye recognised to be worth hundreds if not thousands of times more than that.

In 2001, Tesfaye opened Makush Art Gallery and Restaurant in the centre of Addis Ababa. Fusing dazzling art with flavoursome food was a stroke of genius. Makush is as loved for its authentic Italian restaurant as for its diverse and exciting selection of art. Nati Yohannes, Art Director of Makush, says: Artists in Ethiopia were creating phenomenal paintings but they couldn’t sell their work. Makush broke through that. Some of our artists have studied at art college: they have the education, the discipline, the understanding. Others are self-taught: they’re not tied, they’re free, and they make original works of art. Art comes from the inside.

Makush’s insistence on paying artists by bank transfer was ground-breaking, as were their loans to assist artists financially at the start of their careers. This enabled artists to buy materials, to experiment, and to live. Makush now represents more than 120 artists, and has taken several of them to international art exhibitions, enabling them to exchange ideas with artists from around the world.

A number of galleries in Addis now showcase Ethiopia’s booming art scene. Ethiopians are starting to see art as something of value, to appreciate and to collect. Galleries of note include St George Interior Decoration and Art Gallery, Gebre Kristos Desta Center, Gurumayle Art Center, Fendika Cultural Center, Zoma Museum and of course the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design. Addis Fine Arts, an exciting newcomer established in 2016, has white cube galleries in Addis and in London; founders Rakeb Sile and Mesai Haileleul’s aim to promote Ethiopian contemporary art in their galleries and at art exhibitions has come to fruition faster than they could ever have dreamt.

Ethiopian artists are not only represented in galleries around the world but are presenting solo exhibitions. Private collections and international exhibitions alike feature one or more Ethiopian artist, several dedicating whole sections to Ethiopia. None of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fairs at London, New York and Marrakesh would be complete without a wealth of works by Ethiopian artists. With names as big as Smithsonian, Sotheby’s, Tate Modern and MoMA displaying Ethiopian art, Ethiopia’s artists have unquestionably attained their place in the realm of international art. Now the art world’s eyes are on Ethiopia as collectors around the globe wait with baited breath to see what the emerging generation of Ethiopian artists will produce next.

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