Worldwide, commercial art galleries are established by private investors to promote artworks by contemporary artists. Although there are different models, the most common business model applied by privately owned galleries is making a profit while promoting fine arts including drawings, photos, figurines, hands loom or installation art.
With such intention, Addis Fine Art Gallery, which was established in January 2016 in Addis Ababa, organized its second local art exhibition recently featuring the works of four artists. Internationally, Addis Fine Art also participated in the Armory Show’s of African Perspective Section held in New York last year; in addition to its participation in four other international exhibitions including London based African and African descent art show. Founders of the gallery also say Addis Fine Art is serving as a hub for innovative arts programmes. EBR’s Tamitat Astatkie discussed with the founders of the gallery as well as artists to find out the contributions of the gallery to the country’s undeveloped art.
Art works help a lot in the documentation of culture, history, identity and aspirations of communities. They’re in fact the heartbeat of civilization. It is this power of art that persuaded Mesai Haileleul from Los Angeles and Rakeb Sile from London to set up Addis Fine Art gallery in Addis Ababa despite their differences in age, gender and experience.
Recently, the gallery displayed a group exhibition under the theme ‘Addis Calling II’ featuring the works of Addis Gezahegn, Mulugeta Kassa, Abiy Solomon and Bezawit Wondwossen, for the second time since its establishment a year ago. On the exhibition, which was held from March 25 to May 20, 2017, different paintings, glass mono prints and photographs that represent local talent in a diverse range of artistic expressions were displayed.
Mesai, 60, has had more than two decades of experience as an art collector, dealer and owner of a gallery in Los Angeles. He moved to Addis Ababa in 2014 after 40 years of stay in the US. On the other hand, Rakeb, who is in her 30s and resides i n London permanently, is a business consultant but she has a strong love for art works. What’s more, having a good network of friends in the arena of art business plays a pivotal role in Rakeb’s carrier.
“We met in Addis Ababa in 2012 through a common friend and it didn’t took me long to notice Rakeb’s enthusiasm for arts,” Mesai told EBR recalling their first meeting. “She paid me a visit in Los Angeles shortly afterwards. We spent sometimes together visiting galleries in the city and showing her my collections and then she immediately proposed to work together.”
When contemporary arts have increasingly become the centre of focus and discussion in international art fairs, Mesai and Rakeb decided to open a gallery in Addis Ababa in 2013. “It took us almost three years to assess different locations and the feasibility of our project, and on January 9, 2016 Addis Fine Art Gallery officially started its operation,” says Mesai.
The gallery was established with ETB600,000 paid up capital. While Mesai coordinates activities and manages the gallery in Addis Ababa, Rakeb is responsible for managing the international art business networks from London. This allows Rakeb and Mesai to bring a high level of expertise to make Addis Fine Art Gallery well positioned to promote the work of an impressive roster of artists in Ethiopia and around the globe.
According to the founders, the gallery, located in the now-burgeoning Bole Medhanialem, aims to represent established and emerging international artists primarily from Ethiopia and the Diaspora community. It also strives to promote the works of Ethiopian artists globally to increase their visibility and inscribing their practice within the global language of cultural production.
To achieve these goals, the gallery organises exhibitions locally and participate in prominent art fairs abroad. For instance, when the gallery officially inaugurated, it organized its first local group exhibition under the theme ‘Addis Calling’ featuring the works of seven young artists including Dawit Abebe and Workneh Bezu. During the exhibition vibrant mix of painting, photography and mixed media that reflect the dynamic artistic activities in Addis Ababa were displayed. Furthermore, the gallery hosted three solo local exhibitions with artists, Leykun Wondifraw, Mary Kokeb, and Michael Tsegaye.
Shortly after its establishment, Addis Fine Art participated in the Armory Show’s of African Perspective Section held in New York, one of the internationally acclaimed premier art fairs and cultural destinations for discovering and collecting the world’s most important 20th and 21st century artworks, in March 2016.
The New York’s Armory Show, which represents an essential event in the art calendar, held its 22nd edition since its creation in 1994 and hosted a diverse selection of both emerging and established artists, who represented 205 galleries from 36 countries. It lasted for four days and was visited by more than 60,000 people in the busy city aka one of the world’s major commercial, financial and cultural hubs.
Inside the African Perspective Section, 14 galleries, many from Africa displayed their art works by different artists who are working across different styles and mediums. “Our participation in the Armory Show by its own was a great achievement. More importantly, it paved the way wide open for us to take part in subsequent international art fairs that were organized worldwide through invitation,” Mesai claims.
After the Armory show, Addis Fine Art was able to participate in London based African and African descent art show known as 1:54, to designate Africa and its countries, and other art fairs that were organized in Johannesburg, Paris and Cape Town. “We are more than successful as per our measuremnts for being able to participate in different international art fairs and exhibitions in less than thirteen months of operations in the art business arena,” Mesai reiterates.
Dawit and Workneh, who are becoming popular through their artworks, had a chance to work with Addis Fine Art. They acknowledge the gallery’s contribution, especially in promoting Ethiopian emerging artists at the international stage by allowing their works of art to be displayed in well-recognized international art fairs.
“In my experience, Addis Fine Art is a pioneer art gallery to promote young Ethiopian artists at home and abroad in a consistent manner. It has also introduced international standard with signing contracts to collaborate with artists,” says Dawit.
According to Mesai, the gallery signs a minimum of three years contract with a single artist while for group exhibitors, a contract that lasts for a year is offered. “Based on the performance of the artists the contract will be extended or terminated,” he explained.
Taking a peculiar feature of the gallery, Workneh also praises its involvement in pure art business without mixing it with other businesses, which is a common practice in other galleries. “This, in turn, will positively influence the professional development of fine art in the country,” Workneh underscores.
In addition to displaying art works, Addis Fine Art facilitates and sells art works. “For this purpose, we hired an international art curator that will handle the selection and collection of artworks that will be displayed as well as organize art exhibition,” explains Mesai. “However, the business is not going smoothly at this moment due to the slowdown observed in the economy.”
Addis Fine Art also serves as a hub for innovative art programmes including exhibitions, lectures, and events showcasing the works of artists from Ethiopia and the Diaspora. This far, the gallery hosted panel discussions on ‘Art and Architecture’ and ‘Feminism and Ethiopian Arts’, in which prominent scholars and interested indivduals presented their perspectives. In collaboration with the American Mission at the African Union to commemorate February, Black History Month, Addis Fine Art, also housed a workshop and an exhibition of artworks drawn by refugees from different African countries.
“We don’t merely want to be a gallery rather to be a vibrant venue for different activities. We have also planned to bring artists from different countries hosting exhibitions and creating experience sharing platform with the Ethiopian artists,” says Mesai. “It is only the finance that holds us back.”
Many agree that Addis Fine Art has laid a foundation and set a standard for the upcoming art galleries to promote Ethiopian artists at international stages as well as to be beneficiary of their works. “The gallery is a plus in the art business and galleries in Ethiopia. For instance the initiative that Addis Fine Art takes to create a platform to facilitate discourses among the art community and beyond is commendable,” stresses Bekele Mekonnen, professor of fine arts at Alle School of Fine Art and Design, the Addis Ababa University.
However, Bekele argues that what Addis Fine Art attempts is too little to bring a genuine change. “This is because Ethiopia still sticks to the traditional way of doing things and is in a status quo regarding art despite the country’s long history in the area,” he explains. “Although the effort exerted by few art galleries is appreciated, genuine change requires a revolution that brings radical change to cope with the dynamism taking place in the rest of the World.” EBR
5th Year • May 2017 • No. 50