Sculpture Art Gets Its Day In The Sun

Berhanu, a 40 year old sculpture artist, has a one room office in Megenagna where he tries to design the perfect sculpture for his clients.

He like most of his colleagues, used to work on statues for funeral homes. Such pieces used to cost around 2,000 Br. Nowadays, however, a small sculpture of a person for a funeral home can cost up to 50,000 Br.

“In the 20 years that I have been working, the whole industry has changed drastically,” Berhanu told Fortune.

After Berhanu graduated from Addis Ababa University’s Alle School of Fine Arts and Design in 1989, he found it hard to earn a living in the art industry.

“I had to work from home since I had no money to employ assistants,” said Berhanu. Most of the pieces he was asked to work on were statues. On a good day, he might be commissioned to make a fountain piece.

His company today, called Hardi Sculpture Company, has five permanent and from 17 to 25 temporary employees, depending on the complexity of the piece they are working on. The company’s permanent employees are paid from 1,000 to 6,000 Br a month.

“Half of the payments I get from any given piece goes to the expenses that are incurred in the process of making them,” Berhanu said. “Even though the payments have increased, clients are still not aware of our expenses for inputs including materials such as cement, and employees’ expenses.”

There are three materials most widely used in sculpture in Ethiopia: fibreglass, concrete or bronze. The most expensive are the bronze cast sculptures ,although most of Berhanu’s customers request concrete sculptures. The process of making a sculpture begins with a sketch. Then comes a wooden ‘skeleton’ to reinforce the sculpture. Clay will later be applied to the skeleton. The next step is to cast the sculpture in gypsum. Casting is a process where the clay framework of the sculpture is cut in half, coated with gypsum and then reattached. The gypsum cast will then be removed through a chemical process.

Later on, the two-piece gypsum cast will be filled with a concrete from bottom to top.

“At this point, they need to be watered twice a day until they dry. It can take up to 20 days for a life sized sculpture to dry, depending on the size of the piece,” explained Berhanu. Bronze has a similar process as concrete sculptures, except the use of cement for the casting instead of gypsum.

Sculptures are becoming more visible around town as new businesses and hotels go up and the art industry expands.

“Although a sculptor needs to make a name to make a proper living, there are many projects being carried out by institutions that pay well.The construction of more buildings, hotels and malls has increased the exposure of customers to sculptures,” says Kiros TekleHaimanot an artist who has been working as a painter for the past 13 years.

One of the best examples of sculpture on the institutional level is the Oromia Cultural Institute, located around the Addis Ababa Stadium. Berhanu was paid 50,000 Br for each of the eight human sized sculptures that resemble the warriors that guard the king called Abba Geda in the Oromia Gedda System. These pieces have a height of 2.20 to 2.50 meters.

The most iconic installation at the centre is entitled “Irreccha and Family.” Each part of the installation took three months to finish. He was also paid 115,000Br for each as well. He was awarded around 50,000 Br for his last last sculpture at the Oromia Centre piece, seven mixed media art pieces located outside the walls of the Oromia Centre. They were made from copper, bronze, aluminium and iron.

“My work at this institution also includes 40 reliefs at the Oromia Cultural Institute, it has a height of 2.50 to 3.50 while its width is 150 to 120 cm,” he said. He was paid 50,000 for each.

Zemen Bank was one such institutional customer as well. The ‘Korma Bera’ is a sculpture of a bull that sits outside the bank’s headquarters.

The bank’s marketing officer, who is very fond of the piece at his work place, explains that the art work was placed right at the front of the office because a picture wouldn’t have been able to communicate the message of the company’s logo: strength.

“Many are amazed by it,” he said.   “Out of all of Ethiopia’s livestock production, around 80pc are Korma Beras. We were trying to give the impression that one farmer should own at least one Korma to in order to increase livestock production and the overall economy.”

The   Sheraton Addis Hotel Marketing Manager, Kaleb Assefa, has a differing opinion of the value of sculptures to the aesthetic of hotels.

The only sculpture that the Sheraton possesses is a horse statue at the fountain near the lobby. “The sculpture was a gift to the hotel. We did not purchase it,” he explained.

“Due to a lack of space, we don’t have any sculptures, but we do collect art.”

Demetros Kidan, another graduate of the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, currently works in painting rather than sculpture. However, he too agrees with the assessment that the sculpture industry is gaining more acknowledgement.

“When I first graduated, sculptures did not exist in Ethiopia, so I had to direct my energy to painting. If the industry had paid this well back then, I would have remained a sculptor,” he said.

Many other sculpture companies have been seeing improved returns from the industry. Tesfay Gebre Art and Sculpture Works was given a contract to install 72 artful relief with a contractual agreement of 14.5 million Br.

They company is best known for constructing the sculpture of Alula Aba Nega in Mek’elle, and a sculpture located in the African Union Hall. However, there are still issues with the demand for sculptures on the wider market. “There should be a central place where tourists and other customers can go when they are looking to purchase such items,” said Berhanu.

There is also the problem of space, especially in smaller art galleries. Better known and bigger galleries, such as Makush, should try to make up for the lack of space given to sculptures, according to Berhanu.

Bekele Mekonnen, assistant professor of fine arts at Addis Ababa University, praises the growth in the industry, although he does mention some issues.

“Statistically, the increase in investment, and the development of the city as a whole has been benefiting the sculpture industry. However, the main concerns of decreasing taxation on art supplies and providing space and expert consultation to up and coming artists haven’t been addressed yet,” says Bekele. “We are latecomers to sculpture art,” he added.

“In our country, sculptures have been set in the compartment of “stone and cement.” In other countries, sculpture art has reached a wider dynamism.” Since Ethiopia is being rehabilitated and refurbished with millions of dollar, the authorities should consult the experts on this field on how to give Ethiopia the look it needs to truly be the capital city of Africa, concluded Bekele







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