The Zoma Contemporary Art Centre has gained international notoriety for its unique design and decorations. But the construction of the facility isn’t the only thing that sets them apart from traditional art museums in Ethiopia – their desire to produce and promote environmentally friendly art is another unique trait that resonates with visitors. EBR’s Meseret Mamo visited the Centre to speak with the owners and hear what visitors think of their unique take on art creation and presentation.
When observed from the outside, the Zoma Contemporary Art Centre, located near the Mozambique Embassy in the Nifas Silk Lafto District, seems like a quotidian establishment. However, anyone who enters the compound and sees the magnificent artistic touch imprinted throughout its design will see that there is nothing ordinary about the venue.
The Centre’s ornate compound – which features unique sculptures and greenery – has even garnered acclaim from abroad. It was cited in The New York Times’ list of 52 places to visit in 2014, occupying the 13th position.
The main eye-catching masterpiece resides on the wall of the main house, which was carved using an intricate technique to create a twisted tree root that closely resembles the shapes of different insects and reptiles.
Another interesting aspect of the Centre was that the house is built using locally available and traditional materials and methods. All the artefacts were constructed using straw and look burned to some extent. The round roof itself is also made of straw, bamboo and wood.
Drawings of small insects and small reptiles, especially tortoises and lizards, feature prominently throughout the Centre. Meskerem Assegued, a curator who co-owns the Centre, says there is a special reason for this.
“The fact that although tortoises are slow but they accomplish what they want at all costs impresses me,” says Meskerem, who studied clinical psychology and cultural anthropology. “While I was studying cultural anthropology I dedicated my thesis to tortoises.”
Meskerem is an artist who has organised numerous exhibitions both in Ethiopia and abroad in the past 16 years. These include Giziawi, an art happening in Addis Ababa in 2002; Divine Light by David Hammons at the Zoma Contemporary Art Centre in 2003; Green Flame with Elias Sime, Ernesto Navolo and Julie Mehretu; and the co-organised Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart by Elias Sime and Peter Sellars, both in 2009.
She was also a member of selection committee for the 2004 Dak’Art Biennale and the 2007 Venice Biennale African Pavilion, in addition to making a video art exhibition with four artists.
Much like Meskerem, Elias Sime, co-owner and designer of the Centre, thinks the time it took to construct the house resembles the life of a tortoise. “The process of making the artistic works was so slow, yet we accomplished what we had in mind eventually,” he says.
Meskerem remembers how slow and tough it was to construct the Centre after they bought it 15 years ago. “We went through a very difficult process to acquire a permit from the government to reconstruct the house according to our plan. The construction of the Centre also took eight years to finalise because of financial problems and the artwork itself took time [to create] since it has to represent both our feelings and perspectives,” she recalls.
The use of natural materials in the creation of their artwork and the Centre itself was deliberate, as the owners say that it falls in line with their overall goal of producing environmentally friendly art.
In fact, the initial purpose of the Centre was to serve as a studio for Elias to produce art, which usually features a message about environmental protection.
Beyond their love of art, what unites Meskerem and Elias is their interest in environmental protection efforts. Meskerem told EBR that the art centre itself is one of the ways they express their feelings for the environment. “We use the raw nature almost entirely to make artistic creations,” she says.
Although the facility began undergoing construction in 2002, the owners feel that there is still more work to be done. “I never feel like I have finished it,” says Elias, who is a graduate of the Addis Ababa University (AAU) Ale School of Fine Arts and Design.
Since 2001, Elias has been traveling with Meskerem to many rural villages in Ethiopia to study ancient rituals that are still in practice. Since then, most of his art works have been influenced by the findings of the research.
Despite its interesting artefacts and acclaim, the Centre is not fully opened to the public. It only recently started engaging with the public by hosting mini-workshops and gatherings. “Still many visitors from [Ethiopia] and abroad come and see the place. Especially after The New York Times ranked it in the 2014 lists of places to visit, tourists from around the globe, are pouring in,” according to Meskerem, who says that she is forced to receive tourists on appointment.
One of the visitors was David Rifkind, associate professor in the Department of Architecture at Florida International University. He heard about the Centre from his friend. When Rifkid came to Ethiopia to give a lecture at AAU’s Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development, he took the opportunity to see the place in person.
“I was fascinated by what I saw, especially the equal integration of rich architectural and artistic works of the house,” Rifkid told EBR. “The way the building interacts with sunlight and the way the underside of the roof is illuminated is also wonderful. The level of handicraft in the wood tile, doors, windows and the ladder is more than I expected.”
Abel Tilahun, an artist himself and adjunct professor of Digital Imaging, Motion Graphics and Animation at American University has visited several times.
He told EBR that every time he visits he sees something new. “I am impressed by the beauty of the venue but most of all I am impressed by the fact that the Centre is built in an eco-friendly manner,” says Abel.
The fascination exhibited by Abel and Rifkind falls in line with the overall goal that Elias and Meskerem (pictured above) have: to inspire others to protect the environment through the eco-friendly ethos that undergirds their work and the Centre’s design. They also want others to follow their lead by engaging in similar modes of artistic production: “We are happy to cooperate and show the way,” Meskerem told EBR. “What is the use of [merely] getting buried with knowledge [about environmental protection]?” she asks while explaining the need to engage in practical actions of environmental conservation. She says that concrete measures are more important than a theoretical understanding of the subject.
To that end, she says that they are working on a project of building an artist residence in Harla, which would be constructed with mud only, no wood or cement. She also notes that they will use cactus juice as an adhesive to tighten the mud.
In an attempt to encourage others to construct things from natural materials, Meskerem says she won’t patent the idea or get offended if people mimic their style. In fact, she hopes that will be the case, as it will demonstrate their environmental protection efforts weren’t futile: “If people copy that means they accept and like it.” EBR
4th Year • January 16 2016 – February 15 2016 • No. 35