Cashin’ net Painting The Emerging Demand for Local Arts

Seeing Tadesse Mesfin’s painting – Kelem Kebiw [The Painter] at the age of 16 was a life changing experience for Henok Getachew. Since then, he was immersed in art. Born in 1976, Henok later on went to the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design and graduated with a certificate in General Art in 1997. Since then, Henok has painted dozens of paintings, mainly on the walls of new hotels and restaurants in town and worked for beverage companies as a sign painter. He started doubting his artistic acumen and whether he will be able to live off his promotional paintings when digital art and signage took over the pictorial advertisement business.

“I once thought the era of paintings was over,” says Henok. This was the feeling that forced him into the digital advertisement business. Taking basic courses on computer science, he joined the digital art world. He established an advertising company that is named after himself: Henok Advertisement, renting an ETB1,000 per month office, and was able to make a net ETB12,000 per month on average. He was able to support his family, a wife and a daughter, with it. Though it was rarely that he painted artistic paintings, even when he was a painter, the total shift to graphic designing has made his connection to the art of painting even thinner.

Many Painters had given upon their dreams and took over other jobs and their paintings had ended up nowhere or on the walls of restaurants and butcheries. Artists were not able to live off their artistic works; it was in fact rarely that exhibitions were held, paintings get sold and galleries were almost nonexistent, until recent developments slowly start changing this course, a change well received by Henok.

These changes were too good to come true for Henok. Once he noticed the growing commercial activity in the art scene, he never hesitated to shut down his old business and rent another place for ETB5,000 a month to open a painting gallery. Neither had he had any second thought when he pushed away his digital printers and cutters replacing them with painting brushes and paints.

When Ethiopian Business Review visited his place in Nifas Silk Lafto District, near what is commonly known as Adey Abeba Bridge, he was drawing a photo portrait of a newly married couple. This is the first order worth an ETB10, 000 he was commissioned immediately after he opened up the gallery. He is also confident that he will be able to sale his other paintings. Yet, Henok is realistic about the society’s perception of art. “People need to understand your painting for them to appreciate it and then buy it,” he argues.

Here in Addis, paintings are being sold for amounts that were unthinkable just a decade ago. It is becoming easier for artists to get buyers for their arts and sell them for a couple of thousands. One such painter is Teferi Teshome, who has been painting for living for the last 15 years. The first time he presented his paintings was in 2005 on an exhibition organized by Alliance Ethio Franćaise. He remembers taking more than 40 paintings to the event and selling many of his works for an average price of ETB40,00 each.

Currently, Tefferi’s paintings are available at Makush Art Gallery, one of the growing numbers of galleries in the city, located at Mega Building on Africa Avenue. “The business of art is growing,” Teferi says. “We cannot say everyone has understood the art though as the majority of the buyers are more interested in matching their walls with their carpets and curtains.” He is thankful for the opportunity that the gallery created for him though.

Established 13 years ago, Makush Gallery now displays works of more than 45 painters. A painting on Makush’s floor cost an average of ETB5500. “Ethiopian art is so unique that it is only a matter of time before these same pictures will be sold for a lot more money,” says Tesfaye Hiwot Hidaru, the founder of Makush. Whenever a buyer pays for the paintings, Maksuh takes a 55pct commission while the balance goes to the artist.

Beyond availing paintings for sell locally, Makush has also participated on international events taking Ethiopian paintings abroad. These shows include the one which was staged in Sweden in July 2013 and the one which will take place in Madrid, Spain in September 2013. The biggest price tag for an Ethiopian painting, according to Makush’s experience on international exhibitions reaches USD5000, a painting sold on an event organized by Abyssinian Church in New York, one of the richest African American organizations in the US. “Locally, to date our biggest sale is ETB15,000,” Tesfaye says.

Tesfaye remembers his first Ethiopian customer, Haile Gebresilassie, the great Ethiopian runner. Back then the customers were overwhelmingly foreigners but now on average at least three Ethiopians purchase paintings from Makush’s floor every week. Besides for own use, Ethiopians have begun to purchase paintings as wedding, graduation and farewell gifts, like the one which was purchased by workers of the Addis Abeba City Administration to be presented as a farewell gift to the outgoing Mayor of the City, Kuma Demeksa. Maksuh also has been selling paintings at the European Union office and Hilton Addis.

Besides the opportunity available on the floors of the more than 30 galleries and two museums in the City, artists also find buyers for their works during annual art exhibitions like the ones organized by Netsa Art Village, Sheraton Addis and Alliance Ethio Franćaise. Others could also make their earnings by drawing artistic paintings on new buildings such as the Oromia Cultural Center, part of the building of the Central Office of OPDO[Oromo People’s Democratic Organization], a new facility around the Addis Abeba Stadium.

As galleries facilitate the marketing end of the business, Getahun Heramo supplies the basic ingredients needed for painting, for most of the city’s painters. “Getahun avails the paints we need for an affordable price,” Teferi testifies.

Getahun is the owner of Nita Color Center, which gives training and consultancy service for painting jobs of new buildings, besides producing paints.  He was an employee at Nifas Silk Painting Factory, before establishing the Center in 2003. The Center, whose factory is located around Kality, sells paints in 10ml through 1000ml packages. There are three kinds of paints: oil paints, 30ml of which is sold for ETB14, Acrylics, the same size of which is sold for ETB10 and Watercolor which is a new product with no price tag yet. More than 75pct of the input for the production of paints is produced locally while the balance, which is mainly the color powder, is imported.

If it was not for Getahun, painters would be forced to buy imported paints. 200ml of imported oil paint is sold for more than ETB180. Teferi argues that had it not been for local substitutes, the scarcity and the expensiveness of imported paints would have made it difficult for young painters and students, like the ones in Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, to go on painting.

As much as many in the business of painting agree on the gap filled by Nita Color Center and other domestic suppliers, there is still problems regarding inputs for students and ex-students such as Yohannes Bayu who graduated this year from the School. “The shortage of paints has been evident throughout our study,” says Yohannes who graduated from the Art Education Department. Yohannes also thinks that the painting business is improving with the public coming to understand at least the aesthetic value of arts if not the idea behind the paintings. Yohannes is planning to rent a studio with a friend of his and work as a full time studio artist for both the love of the art and for the financial rewards as well.

Established in 1965, Alle School of Fine Arts and Design was the first of its kind in Ethiopia. Since then, the School has undergone significant changes. Upon establishment, the School used to teach only drawing, painting, sculpture, commercial art and art education.

Yet, since it was incorporated in Addis Ababa University in 2005, it adds additional field of studies and opened a degree program in fine arts in 2007. Later on it was bundled with Yared Musical School and the Theatrical Arts Department to form Skunder Bogossian College of Performing and Visual Arts.

For the last four years, the School has been admitting more than 30 students each year on average, according to Birhanu Ashagre, head of the School. “Teaching painting needs space and lots of materials, and it is relatively expensive,” says Birhanu in explaining why the School admits far less number of students than the number of students who apply to join the School, which is more than 300.

Others who want to pursue their passion of painting could join the more than 10 Schools in the different public Universities in the country. The not more than 10 private art schools in Addis Abeba provide the other options too.

The painting market has been witnessing dramatic changes in the last couple of years. Following this, an art what once was mostly done for passion has started to make head ways in the business world as well. As the middle class urbanite grows in number and mixture, this trend is expected to gain momentum. Ethiopian young painters could even break in to the international market in the not so far future. All in all the prospects of the Ethiopian painting market looks bright.


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