For the past 10 years, Art of Ethiopia has served as a platform for talented local artists to showcase their works of art for the public and art lovers. Aside from supporting artists, the Exhibition is also affiliated with the Sheraton Endowment Charity. This year, the 4-day long event kicked off on December 6, 2017, at Sheraton Addis Hotel, with over 430 artworks ranging from paintings and carvings to sculptures put up for the visitors. CHRISTIAN TESFAYE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER, gives a firsthand account.
Beyond Sheraton Addis Hotel’s Christmas decorated hallways, past the staircase that leads directly into the Lalibela Ballroom, there were somewhat frustrated aesthetes sifting through catalogues of the Art of Ethiopia.
The exhibition had ended about three hours earlier on the final day – the ballroom’s attendants claiming that the hall had to be made ready for another event on the morrow.
Despite the hard feelings, it was impossible not to notice the excitement even in exploring the catalogues, which sell for 1,500 Br a piece, depicting some of the year’s artworks. The people that came to visit, comprising of a good deal of non-nationals, not less the youth, could be heard speaking of “bright colours” or “brushstrokes”.
One of these people was Sisay Mersha, whose real name was withheld upon request. He had bought a painting, one that features an animal, but was likewise disparaging of portrait paintings.
“Who would want to see the same face every day?” he laments speculatively.
A feeling that a couple of his companions share, contradicting the prominence of the most popular painting of all time, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Indeed, the exhibition featured many portraits, rarely of a man, and consistently of a young female, garbed in traditional Ethiopian clothing, with a straight nose, high cheeks and a proportional jawline and chin.
That was not all. There were landscapes and even drawings of abstract objects with sharp lines that contort into the human form, the latter of which was typified in a piece by Brook Yeshitela. Aside from paintings, sculptures, such as of a horse or an eagle, paper drawings were also displayed at the 10 year anniversary of the Art of Ethiopia.
All in all, there were 430 works of art by 60 Ethiopian artists for the general public to come and enjoy, just a handful of the hundreds of artists who have participated in the annual event since its inception in 2008. Then, there were a mere eight painters who showcased their work.
Art of Ethiopia began as part of the Sheraton Addis’ corporate social responsibility programme, under the stewardship of the hotel’s late general manager, Jean-Pierre V. Manigoff, who passed away a couple of years ago.
“That one was a sample, to see if this will pan out,” says Lulseged Retta, one of the eight who presented their work then and an organiser of the event, displaying the paperback catalogue – in contrast to the later one’s hardback – of the original art exhibition.
Art of Ethiopia began as part of the Sheraton Addis’ corporate social responsibility programme, under the stewardship of the hotel’s late general manager, Jean-Pierre V. Manigoff, who passed away a couple of years ago, and whose legacy Lulseged believes the exhibition is.
When first launched, it was under the name of “Merge”, but it would continue the following year under its current name, with 30 artists participating. A mark of its rapid acclaim was that Afewerk Tekle, an internationally renowned Ethiopian artist, and Alefelege Selam, the founder of the Addis Abeba University’s Ale School of Fine Arts & Design, also presented their works.
Simultaneously, the Sheraton Addis Art Endowment Fund was launched, to which 10pc of the art show’s proceeds are donated. Through the fund, the over a century old Ale School was sponsored a lithograph printing machine. And this year, the school’s premises, its kitchen and dining hall underwent a renovation.
As the exhibition approached its 10th anniversary, there were some challenges along the road, like artists copying works, and the lack of coming up with new pieces. Getting the artists to be more reasonable in setting the prices for their work, which is entirely at their discretion, has also been another bother.
But, that still has not stopped the exhibition from getting people’s attention. Although it is hard to determine how many visited, for there are no entrance fees, Lulseged estimates that 30,000 to 40,000 people saw the artworks in this year’s four-day-long exhibition.
“It is so interesting, and gets better for me by the year,” said Leul Senkeneh, a fresh graduate, attending the event for the second year in a row after hearing about it through friends on social media.
Hotels buy original art pieces for their hallway walls, and even people have begun giving newlyweds paintings as a wedding present.
Still, he is dismayed that more people, especially his generation’s youth, are not more attentive to the art scene.
A view Natnael Yohannes, art director at Makush Art Gallery & Restaurant, does not share.
“A few years ago, most artists walked directly into our gallery, unlike now where they do so after parking their cars,” he says, proud of how buoyant the market currently is, and the 350,000 dollars to 400,000 dollars in hard currency the gallery contributes to the country, annualy.
Hotels buy original art pieces for their hallway walls, and even people have begun giving newlyweds paintings as a wedding present. To nail in the art industry’s momentum, Natnael insists that 70pc of all tourists that enter the gallery buy at least an art piece.
Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the market does moderate once summer, which corresponds to the rainy season of kremit in Ethiopia, arrives and most tourists leave. Then, artists would have to lower their prices.
The Art of Ethiopia, thus, stands to encourage artists, in summer or otherwise.
“It is good for the artists, helps them network and allows us all to remember great artists that may be forgotten,” says Lulseged, sharing an assertion that Sisay and his friends find reasonable.
Like Sisay, many participants praise the fact that there are more young people this year. And spending tens of thousands of Birr for a piece of painting – one curled-up dog, an iron sculpture by Wondwossen Beyene, fetched 200,000 Br – in a low-income country does not bother him either.
To the pleasure of its attendees, the exhibition will continue, right there at the Sheraton Addis, but biannually after now. The coming year will instead see the hotel hosting a photography exhibition. In the meantime, the vetting process of the already registered 412 artists will take place, where their latest works will be assessed to qualify for the 11th Art of Ethiopia.