The Fulani Empire

City as a Canvas

Urban thinking is often shaped by artistic touches. A simple painting can change minds, more than lectures or politicians’ speeches. A city with more artistic room can transform residents into civilized minds rather than modernization enthusiasts. For street artists thriving to bring such taste, Addis Ababa is rather a construction site than an inspirational neighborhood. Street art, an under formation concept in the capital, has to compete for space, amidst growing use for walls, buildings, structures, and outdoor spaces by commercial ads. Samuel Habtab, traveled around with groups of street artists rebranding the capital.

Traveling a lot as a Photographer and Industrial Designer, Solomon Kifle, 29, observed that though facelifting and rapid urbanization, the streets of Addis Ababa lack artistic inspiration.
“Buildings are growing but spaces and walls are used for commercial ads of beer and other companies. Public parks are growing but spaces are not left for street art. Addis Ababa is not experiencing the inspirational value of street art,” he said.

To fill the vacuum, Solomon founded Addis Street Art (ASA) in 2018. It encompasses a group of artists specializing in street art, graffiti, mural art, and wall art. Street art refers to outdoor paintings on buildings, columns, and pieces of infrastructure.

ASA usually execute such paintings as an outsourced project from commercial building owners or government offices to communicate messages to the public. “Sometimes, we do street art for free if I like the concept and the venue. It helps for our portfolio,” says Solomon. The group has realized a number of street art projects and has collaborated with the Goethe Institute, Italian Institute of Culture, and Alliance Ethio-Française.

Color, theme, equipment, and time required are considered to calculate prices. Street art costs between ETB3,000 and ETB5,000 per square meter, currently in Addis Ababa. The group uses its own materials.

Street art, especially graffiti, is believed to have started in New York when residents started writing and drawing on walls in different neighborhoods, usually depicting artistic icons, social issues, and political views. Gradually it evolved into an art form developing its own discipline. The main objective was to use street art as a medium to amplify timely political, social, philosophical, and generational issues. Graffiti and street art travel with time and generational inspirations.

Normal art is well understood in Ethiopia, but not graffiti art. In other parts of the world, the art boomed in the 1980s, growing with political and social movements. Especially in America, youth used street art to convey emotions on injustice, resistance, poverty, and distaste of rulers. Graffiti was the medium of expression.

There are many types of street art, including three-dimensional. Artists in ASA’s team have the freedom to design unique ideas. Street art is always expected to establish an interaction with the environment. But concepts and designs are developed once the client approves the proposed idea.

Graffiti art focuses more on writings and letterings to depict powerful messages in public areas. Mural art is closer to wall paintings and is difficult without practicing graffiti. Chalk art, using white texts and designs on a black background, is also a component of wall art.

Although not recognized and developed, Solomon believes street art in Ethiopia began almost 50 years ago, when people started chanting and posting ‘Land to the Tiller’ outdoors, a major driving theme behind Ethiopia’s political revolution at the time.

“Street art has not grown in Ethiopia, compared to other countries. It is not even taught as a course in Ethiopian art schools. We learn it by ourselves. Many people ask me to draw wall art for them. They do not know graffiti art,” added Solomon. “But we have many projects now.”

The cofounders of the group work as a team. “When there is a project, we forward ideas and the best design will be painted. But when it comes to government projects, we design and paint based on the government’s concept. We do not paint controversial political depictions but rather promote unity. For instance, it might be about Adwa or Women’s Day,” informs Solomon.
Graffiti art is currently picking up steam in Ethiopia, because the youth have better access to online courses and open spaces in urban areas. However, Solomon says spaces are predominantly occupied by advertisements.

“In other countries, buildings, walls, and public areas are left for street art. They are used as a medium and display of expression, beautification, social and political values, and entertainment. It uplifts the artistic value of the city and social consciousness of urbanites,” claims Solomon.

He stresses a city without artistic inspiration cannot foster civilization but only modernization. “Growth is not only about constructing buildings. It is about changing the thoughts and outlooks of the population, creating shared values, and reflecting common social fabrics, dreams, and objectives. Thoughts are shaped by messages all around on walls and surfaces, rather than by speeches on television and radio. A good piece of street graffiti can teach the population about saving, for example.

But now, we see soap ads on building after building. It is indicative of nothing more than companies’ competition which tends to nurture a capitalist mentality, if you are always seeing it. Cities must be entertaining and a place of knowledge.”

Efrata Berhanu, 20, is a passionate Street Artist, specializing in developing concepts. She joined Addis Sweetheart, a collective of street artists, four months ago. She was a student of architecture at Adigrat University before returning to Addis Ababa when COVID-19 closed the university.

“Street art exposes the artist more to the public. In big cities like New York, street art brings society together. A single word is powerful enough to tell everything in graffiti. Graffiti and street art growth in Ethiopia is at a nascent stage. Graffiti is usually about text and is referred to as political or social art. You find writings on some Addis walls like the names of football clubs, usually Buna and Giorgis,” said Efrata.

She says Megenagna and Stadium are usually good spots for street art. “The city administration does not give the space and freedom street art requires. We have to explain to administrators and law enforcers every time we craft street art. Accessing the required equipment is also difficult in Ethiopia because they are considered luxury materials and highly taxed. Government does not consider street art as a job. We work to make Addis a beautiful city, helping tourism in turn.”

Maranata Tegegn worked for long as a Film Maker and Creative Art Director with various agencies and ad companies as well as on music clips, documentaries, short movies, and TV shows. He says the demand for street art is growing in Addis Ababa, not only as a medium of public messaging and commercial advertising, but also as a display of artistic expression. Additionally, film and music video producers increasingly look to use outdoor paintings as background for shootings.

Maranata was introduced to the ASA group when looking for artists who could paint the walls and premises of Shifta, a vegan and Caribbean influenced food establishment owned by Efrata and his wife.

“My wife and I are art enthusiasts. When we planned to open our cafés, we agreed to draw paintings on the walls, rather than having it white. It changes the mood of customers. We got good feedback from the first café. Addis Street Art suggested all of the walls should be painted, so we agreed,” said Efrata.

He says street art and graffiti are essential to change the society. “It has an impact on residents. For instance, most of the constructed structures in Addis Ababa, including buildings, outdoor walls, railway columns, and others are empty. Had they been covered with street drawings, they could inspire, educate, entertain, and provoke people.”

However, he stresses, graffiti and street artists in Ethiopia are not garnering any attention or support from the government nor society. “People think artists paint only on canvas. Today, art is more off canvas. There is installation, welding, wood art, and more. Our artists are also looking for different media to express their work and reflect on generational issues.”
“Most people understand art as what’s found in a gallery. But not many people have the opportunity to go to galleries. Street art is a public gallery but it must make people curious,” added Maranata.

Solomon states that currently there are many artists attracted to street art. “They want opportunities and venues. Street art depicts the timely thoughts of cities. They are reflections of the generational spirit and changes. Companies, business people, and city administrations usually spend large monies on commercial issues but not on the artistic value of urban areas. It shapes the thoughts of the population. The main objective is to use street art as a medium to amplify politics, social philosophies, and generational but timely issues. For instance, street art can create awareness about COVID-19 and empower people during hopeless times.”EBR


9th Year • Jan 16 – Feb 15 2021 • No. 94

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