With Art, Without Witness

As the rainy season has come to an end, the expats that call Addis Abeba home have come back from their vacations. But while they were gone, many of the attendees at galleries as well as the cultural activities like the jazz and Ethio-color at Fendika – one of the very few cultural centres run by an Ethiopian trickled down.

Residents of Addis are continually complaining that there is “nothing to do” while there is plenty to do. It is just that plenty might also mean looking beyond the beaten track.

Artistic endeavours do not find enough support by Ethiopians in Ethiopia. These authentic expressions of art need funding, and the little there is of it is coming from overseas. This in itself presents a danger of producing what the sponsors want and not necessarily an original work of art. Even though Ethiopia is not in the position to subsidise to the calibre of foreigners’ pockets, we can at least support with the means available to us.

The beauty of any artistic expression is originality. But at times it is compromised by the sponsors and what they would like to see for the money they are putting in.

The government should support artists, even if not monetarily but by making the procedures to producing and presenting an artwork smoother. The Ministry of Culture & Tourism (MoCT) has taken over the issuance of performance measurements for institutions, groups and individuals involved in the arts. While this is a more positive move than having these culturally diverse artistic endeavours scattered under different operating permits, a significant problem persists. The licenses the government issues, after assessing the nature of the establishment, is in some cases of a Private Limited Company (PlC) type, which means that they would be taxed the same as any other private business.

How could artistic spaces earn their owners as much as cafés or other purely commercial businesses?

To be taxed the same as a PlC is not just an inconvenience but a noose for hanging. Few artistic companies can cope with such types of changes. Policies should protect the arts, not make-up obstacles where there were previously no issues.

With so many talented Ethiopians unwilling to give up on their dreams, there are still some that fight to keep their space open and available to the public. The expat community makes up most of the crowds drawn to these events though.

I once heard a young man, chugging his beer, complain about how the “the west is poisoning our society”. But when asked what his favourite past time was, he smiled and detailed the many bars and clubs that play hip-hop and dancehall tracks.

Yet, he never spoke of his prefered lyricist in one of Addis’ Azmari bet, nothing about the best tej in town. Our generation has become a walking contradiction. We want to embrace Ethiopia’s eccentricity, but fail to support the free-spirited artists right under our noses.

Art and culture are what shape a generation – make them rational beings and problem solvers. But these are not the values we are championing. The youth would instead enjoy yet another bottle of beer than attend a poetry reading, an Ethio-jazz night, a circus performance, a fashion show or one of the many art galleries open in town.

The shortcoming could also lie with the artists and how they are advertising themselves. The lack of information about such events could be the driving force behind only the same faces and crowds making it to such creative spaces. But with social media open to everyone, information has become easily accessible to most. Social media helps us reach a broad demography of people. This is a great way to reach the wider audience, but people must also be open to new experiences.

Many feel a sense of reluctance when thinking of doing something new. But once we are over that feeling we open ourselves up to new experiences to move forward with Ethiopia’s creative industry but most importantly to become part of something.

To be in Endeguena Mulu’s – a.k.a. Ethiopian Record – presence, while he is playing his set at the GoonGoon event is the same feeling I am sure the generation before me had when sitting in an obscure bar listening to Mulatu Astateke.

To watch Melaku Belay take the stage and move like he is being stung by a thousand ants is a spectacle never to be forgotten. Melaku has done what most leaders we know have not; he continues to honour the past while heading straight for the future.

There are moments like this happening every other day in Addis. New artists emerge with few listeners, waiting for encouragement. Along with the creators, we have the duty to be a generation of listeners, and watchers or we will lose our generation’s creative minds, guardians of culture and shapers of our country’s destiny.

By Hanna Haile
Hanna Haile (hannahaile212@gmail.com) is an Ethiopian writer, researcher and social worker who uses her writing to promote social and gender equality, identity and women’s rights. She is one of the organisers of Poetic Saturday at Fendika Cultural Center where she performs spoken word poetry every first Saturday of the month.

Published on Oct 19,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 911]



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