“When you go to an art-gallery, you are a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.” These were the words of Banksy, a famous British street-artist, who remains anonymous to this day.
Of course, this is true for renowned contemporary private galleries like Gagosian and Zwirner as well as historically prominent, older galleries like Louvre. In fact, in modern times, the usage of the derogatory word ‘philistine’ and the characters of the people it was supposed to represent have all but disappeared; art is a highly respected, highly coveted craft. But in Ethiopia, the art market is quite different.
Nowadays, there seems to be a large number of galleries all across the city. But this was something that came very recently, way after the struggles of many contemporary Ethiopian artists like Laureate Afewerk Tekle.
“We must recognize that the infrastructure in Ethiopia is not conducive to those making digital art – the biggest challenges being selling these works and implementing copyright laws.”
In Ethiopia, historically, there were unspoken etiquettes expected from artists; whatever they produce, they give away (usually to the nobility) without expecting anything in return. And if the works were religious, they were given to the churches without bearing the signatures of the artists as that was thought to be a sign of pride. For these reasons, art collections to be shown to the public hardly existed.
Though these practices were the norm since ancient times, the country’s art-world of today is drastically different. When people visit galleries like Addis Fine Arts or Makush Gallery, they are made aware of the vibrancy and immersive nature of Ethiopian contemporary art which has successfully merged age-old traditions with modernity.
“We wanted to create a space where we would like to go – a place where creativity, freedom of expression and a sense of community thrives,” says Hanna, director of Zellan Creative and Cultural Centre. “We believe that multi-disciplinary, collaborative, contemporary expressions of identity were not getting enough support so we wanted to create that space as best we could.” Zellan, whose aim is to showcase works that are rooted in Ethiopian and East African contemporary experiences while highlighting bold artists with a story to tell, is one of the new galleries that are just starting out. True to their words, though very new, Zellan has indeed created a platform that is very well adapted to this day and age for contemporary expressions of identity. Even a quick look at their website will attest to the fact that they have a high place for contemporary forms of art, especially in the digital format.
Zellan Creative Cultural Center
“Digital art has a big future, but like anything it must be nurtured,” says Hanna, talking about how digital art can survive in this country. “We must recognize that the infrastructure in Ethiopia is not conducive to those making digital art – the biggest challenges being selling these works and implementing copyright laws.” These challenges are not unique to the digital arts market, though; they extend to all other creative forms. The struggle for painters or sculptors to showcase their works escapes no one, least of all the public.
The art market in Ethiopia has improved, both for the gallery owner and the artist, in major ways in past years. But that still doesn’t make starting the gallery business simply for monetary ends a very viable plan. In other countries, the systems set up for private collectors and patrons are what sustain both the artists and galleries. It is not that easy in Ethiopia.
“A real patronage system is actually what we at Zellan are trying to build,” elaborates Hanna, “It is mandatory for the industry to build such a system that can be a pillar for development in the sector, which is the practice of many other countries. Yet, so far Ethiopia is mostly focused on donation campaigns, which raises serious sustainability concerns.”
Those concerns are very real. When asked how they made money, Zen Galleries said, “We have apartments above the gallery and a restaurant there as well. In terms of sustenance, we have those.”
Where exactly these struggles root from is very hard to pin-point. “Majority of people here in Ethiopia believe that going to art galleries and appreciating art is an acquired taste and opt out of it believing it’s not for them,” explains Tifsehet, a frequent art gallery-goer. “When, in contrast, a majority of people in the west have a better tradition of giving art gallery visits personal and recreational value.” This explanation seems accurate – seeing how much recognition the Ethiopian artist lacks. Further evidence for this claim is the clear gap between the number of Ethiopian and foreigner buyers of Ethiopian art. Zen gallery agrees. They think that even though the Ethiopian diaspora and upper-middle-class Ethiopians are willing to pay for art, the true demand lies with foreigners.
Of course, that is not to say that Ethiopia is completely devoid of art appreciation. ‘Tewaney’, an art collector, explains, “If we are talking about ancient Ethiopia, during the period of the monarchy, it can be said that we valued art in all its forms. That was because we had the luxury for it. I am not saying that art is a luxury but there are other priorities. Currently, with all the socioeconomic and cultural problems we are facing, we are not really paying attention to art.”
I asked Tifsehet what the most meaningful experience she has had in a gallery. Her response painted a brighter future state of Ethiopian. “The artwork was titled ‘Adam, Eve and Lilith‘. There were three figures with cloth covering their heads. Their bodies were painted in a cool phthalo blue-tinted colour scheme while the female in the middle had a vibrant cadmium red cloth covering her face.
The composition and the striking choice of primary colours, its large overpowering size and most importantly, the biblical theme of the art threw me off completely. It changed my mind about the current state of Art in terms of freedom of expression. It made me truly believe there are people in the creative industry that work to actually challenge our traditionally frowned upon taboo subjects: including existentialism and philosophical inquiry into religion.”