A Woman who Broke the Glass-ceiling in Ethiopian fine arts

Known as one of the pioneer female painters in Ethiopia, Desta Hagos has been an inspiration to many young women with the desire to pursue their dream of becoming artists. She fell in love with painting and drawing at a very young age. At the age of 18 she became the first female visual arts student to graduate from the then Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts and Design. Taught and mentored under the famous Gebre-Kristos Desta, she has over the years earned a name as one of the most distinguished painters in Ethiopian history. She has more than 50 solo and group exhibitions and numerous honors and recognitions. EBR’s Hiwot Selalew talked to Desta about her life and career.

 It is one thing to marry paint, brush and canvas to create work of art that inspires audience, but it is quite another for a women to become a successful example in a depriving environment. But not for Desta Hagos, who is an accomplished painter and a groundbreaking female artist. From the 1960’s, as a young woman surrounded by male counter parts, to the 1970’s, a period that tested the resolve of her family apart, Desta’s story is one filled with trials and triumphs.

Born in Adwa in 1952, in the state of Tigray, her journey as an artist began at the petite age of five at her family’s small garden. It was a love affair with the blooming flowers that chartered the course of her life’s mission. “I was captivated with them, and found joy in admiring their blissful beauty.” Desta reminiscences.

And one day, her late father brought home crayons for her to paint flowers with, rather than cut them to make bouquets. That was the moment when she realized her love of nature can be expressed in a work of art.

Desta had a pleasant childhood, where her father, a gardener at her elementary school, sowed the passion for the arts in her heart and soul and the courage to follow her dream no matter how rough the journey could be. Desta’s family had a brief stay in Asmara, Eritrea in her childhood before her father passed away when she was eight. Though she lost him at such a young age, his influence was so powerful that she credits her success as a painter to his fatherly encouragement and motivation.

Soon after, the family had to relocate to Addis Ababa, and the young Desta attended the then Empress Menen School for Girls where her painting skills were well received. Despite her loss and all the moving, Desta’s affection for art had never reduced even to the slightest. Her passion for painting grew as she went through high school. Desta’s paintings received recognition when her French high school teacher submitted one of her works to the Shankar International Children’s Art Competition, organized by an Indian foundation. Desta’s work won second place and she received a certificate signed by the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for the landscape painting she did entitle ‘Ye-hager Bet’.

Desta won another award in an art competition held in Tanzania and the thought of actually becoming an artist started to set deeper roots in her mind.  Desta became the first female graduate of the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts and Design, now Alle School of Fine Arts and Design in 1966 with a diploma (Distinction) setting an unprecedented trail for other female painters in the country.

Immediately after graduation, Desta showcased her work at a solo exhibition held at Ras Hotel in Addis Ababa. Building on her sucess, Desta enrolled at the same school to pursue a BA degree programme in visual arts and finalised her study in 1969.

Her work is much inspired and influenced by the late Gebre-Kristos Desta who returned from Germany having graduated with flying colures. Gebre-Kristos, who taught Desta for four of her five years as a student is among the well know Ethiopian painters like the late Afework Tekle and the late Skunder Boghosian that returned to Ethiopia from studying abroad at the same period and influenced Desta in multiple ways.

Following graduation, Desta was offered a teaching job at the same school where she got her diploma. However that only lasted for three months because her fiancé’ got a scholarship in the United States and had to travel with him. Luckily, she too got a chance to pursue further studies and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, California, USA in 1969. She stayed in the US for about three decades before she moved to Addis Ababa permanently.

During her stay at the University, where she also got married, she held four solo and group exhibitions. So far, Desta has showcased her paintings in more than 50 exhibitions in Ethiopia and abroad in a career that has spanned for more than four decades. Among the countries where she showed exhibitions are USA, Germany, Djibouti, Spain, Canada, Denmark and Korea. Her last exhibitions were in 2016, where she exhibited her works in Florida, California in the United States and in Addis Ababa. She showed her latest work, ‘Endless Surprise’, a painting depicting the tradition of Gurage people, and another painting: ‘Yebereha Wubet’ among others.

Desta represents abstract art and sometimes the better established and more popular figurative art that was well practiced especially in 1960’s and 70’s in her works. Her series paintings from 2011 to 2014 that depict the composition of different shapes and colures on canvases indeed show her inclination towards abstract painting.

While most of her paintings are abstract in vivid colours, she also painted scenes of everyday life. Her paintings like ‘The Man with the Pot’ and ‘Kids That I Love’ done in 2010 and 2014, respectively, display Desta’s ability in figurative art. Works like ‘Endless Surprise’, ‘Yebereha Wubet,’ ‘Saberaw Sitefa,’ and ‘Sidet,’ have firmly cemented Desta’s well-deserved place in modern Ethiopian art.

Desta draws inspiration for her work from everyday feelings like the one she felt when her daughter had to travel away. Everyday personal struggles, joys and frustration, feelings of abandonment like the time her husband left her and their daughter or thoughts of desperation in 1976 when numerous of her art works were lost in Addis Ababa served her as inspirational springboards for her work.

The single-mom has a passion for other forms of art as well. Her father taught her to play the kirar, a traditional Ethiopian string musical instrument and she enjoys playing for herself. She also adores theatre. In fact, back in her early days at the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts, the then head of the Theatrical Department, Mengistu Lema, encouraged her to act in a play with renowned actors like Wogayehu Nigatu and Debebe Eshetu. After a single trial, however, Desta chose to focus her energy on her true passion – painting.

To commemorate her work, the Ethiopian Science Academy, organized a workshop on September 16, 2017, where she gave a brief explanation about her previous and recent paintings. “My paintings are like a family to me. I try to avoid selling them.” She told participants at the workshop.

Desta is an accomplished artist and makes decent earnings from her art works. Her earliest works were sold for not more than ETB500. But today, some of her works are price tagged for as high as ETB100,000

Though commercialization of art work has always been in the debate among people in the art circles, there is no question about Desta’s love of art for its own sake. “Working with her brings joy and inspiration and I always wish to be closer so that I could taste her love of art.” says Seyoum Ayalew, a former president of the Ethiopian Painters and Sculptors Association.

Esey Gebremedhin, another painter and lecturer at Alle School of Fine Arts and Design under the Addis Ababa University, shared Seyoum’s opinion. He says, “Young painters and art students should do better to learn from Desta who has always devoted her passion in promoting Ethiopian visual arts.” “She is truly a living testament to what young and especially women painters can achieve.” he said.

Desta Y. Meghoo (JD), an international art promoter and former managing director of the Bob Marley Foundation, consulted Desta when she held her 50th exhibition on April 2014 agrees. “Her values and decency are old school and refreshing in a time when artists need to understand how important integrity is, for not just their creative process but for long and arduous road of an art career.” she wrote in the catalogue prepared during the exhibition.

The daughter of the late Richard Pankhurst, Rita, who edited a book entitled ‘Ethiopian Art and Architecture’ published in 2009, also wrote in the catalogue: “Desta set an example that women can be a full time artist. She blazed a trail for them, showing that it was possible to be an artist and make a living out of it.”

6th Year . November 2017 . No.55

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