In Search of an Appreciative Eye

In Search of an Appreciative Eye

When people speak of Ethiopia’s artistic tradition, it’s likely they are referring to the techniques and styles that have predominated Ethiopian art for centuries. What’s more difficult to find, art insiders say, is a culture that appreciates and consumes contemporary Ethiopian art in a meaningful way. Despite the difficulty in bringing about this culture, many in the country’s artistic community are hopeful things will change gradually. EBR’s Meseret Mamo spoke with a few members of the community to explore the economic and social benefits that may come if their vision comes to fruition.

Ethiopia is often lauded for its centuries-long artistic history, which dates back to antiquity and is noted for its rich, colourful imagery. Many of the things that made the country famous in the other parts of the world remain intact and many contemporary use elements from Ethiopia’s artistic tradition to create modern works.
Despite its previous recognition and lauded traditions, a rich and robust visual arts culture still eludes Ethiopian cities like Addis Ababa. Those who are involved in Ethiopia’s arts community point their fingers on the society’s lack of appreciation towards art works, which they say is one of the factors that hinders its growth.
This is why the topic became a point of discussion at a press conference organised on November 13, 2015 to announce the launch of Ti-zee-ta Longing Loving Living – a fine art exhibition featuring Ethiopian and African Diaspora artists, which opened in Miami on December 5, 2015 in the United States.
During the press briefing, prominent Ethiopian artists like painters Desta Hagos, Daniel Taye and Merid Tafesse discussed the low level of Ethiopian contemporary art and the importance of organising art exhibitions that are accessible to the public.
Merid, a contemporary artist who is known by his charcoal paintings, feels as though he is living in a country where the arts receive little attention although they contribute to nurturing the lives of people. “In the city of more than 5 million people, there are only five art galleries. It is quite shocking that art exhibitions are mostly visited by art students as well as the artist’s relatives and friends,” Meried wonders.
Merid’s sentiments are echoed by many including Desta. Her intention upon moving back to Ethiopia after finishing her education in the United States was to be near people of same culture and tradition. She hoped that being around other Ethiopians would give value to her works and in turn provide her the opportunity to share her experience with up-and-coming artists. “It was quite the contrary. This is a country where many believe art is extrinsic, a luxury that comes after our basic needs,” says Desta.
When discussing the value of arts, stakeholders say one should always start with the intrinsic: how arts illuminate the lives of people and enrich their emotional well-being. Some proponents claim that those who get involved in the arts often engage in altruistic activities through their creativity, such as volunteering, usually in the form of producing art for charities or selling art work in order to raise funds for organisations. And since many artistic forms are communal in nature – like painting a mural or participating in an art class – proponents often tout the social benefits of engaging in artistic production, even as an amateur.
Despite these positive claims, concrete findings to support such assertions elude even the most resolute of advocates. The general value of arts and culture to society have long been assumed and debated without much substantiated evidence to bolster the claims of its proponents. This is because there is a lack of longitudinal studies on the benefits of participation in the arts.
The lack of concrete findings touting the benefits of the arts may be one reason why there is, as some artists claim, reluctance for Ethiopians to embrace it. However, some artists argue that the tangible benefits of the arts are hard to quantify and should not be the only criteria in judging its importance. “Our nature is not only for basic needs, there is a wanting and searching for new things and art is part of it,” argues Daniel.
Meskerem Assegued, an international curator for 25 years, who founded the Zoma Contemporary Art Centre in 2002, agrees that art touches all aspects of human life and is important for that reason. “Art is about everything: furniture, our clothes, household equipment and everything we see around us,” she told EBR.
However, Meskerem believes artists do not do their part in promoting their work in an accessible manner, which could help contribute to creating a culture of art appreciation in Ethiopia. “Since the art is done for the public, the artist must promote the work aggressively and must properly receive his or her audience with respect so that they don’t feel alien to the environment,” she explains.
Still, others believe that the things are beginning to change with regard to the public’s perception and reception of art. Natnael Yohanes, Director of the Makush Art Gallery, says that Ethiopia’s political stability and economic growth have played a major role in people appreciating art. He says he enjoys the fact that Ethiopians purchase 30Pct of the artwork sold at his gallery, though that this still is not enough. “The trend of not appreciating art is changing; now people are buying paintings for their homes or office and also as gifts. But there is so much to do to attract many Ethiopians who do not care about art.”
Natnael is taking about individuals like Essete Kassaye. Having lived in the United States for 13 years, Essete, who is in her 40s, runs Siltun Balemuya Company; she is a second-generation owner. Although she spoke with EBR while visiting Makush Art Gallery, she says she is not drawn to art. “I came to the gallery to accompany my brother who loves paintings,” Essete told EBR.
Despite people’s personal interests, or lack thereof, in art appreciation and collection, local artists’ stress that art can play a role spreading the country throughout the world. This is especially true of artists whose talents are nurtured to the point that they gain global notoriety and appreciation, a dynamic to which Meskerem alludes: “Tourists [from all over the world] call to book a visit in my art centre, but it is also to meet the artist who designed the centre,” she says.
Aside from the cultural aspects of art, evidence shows that it can be a lucrative investment in the right context. In the global market, a piece of art can be auctioned for millions of dollars, a value that appreciates over time. In the right context, contemporary art pieces can be an investment opportunity that brings capital to a country.
Art can also be vessel through which economic activity is brought to a country. In European and North American cities, art is a major investment, as many of these cities are home to prestigious art galleries, auctions and exhibitions. Cities like Paris, Rome, and New York are home to world-renowned contemporary art galleries that host traveling exhibitions that feature prominent artists, often encouraging tourism and increased economic activity.
In fact, according to The Independent, a popular UK-based newspaper, art tourism is on the rise in places like China and Taiwan. The tourism is largely centred on people traveling to a country to view its distinct and culturally nuanced contemporary artwork. The Independent notes that in particular, these countries often display their artwork in public places, so that they’re made more accessible and contribute to the overall aesthetic value and originality of a particular location. The increased tourism flow to a particular locale translates into more capital entering a country and increased job creation.
Furthermore, the experience of some African countries demonstrates that there is financial benefit that can come from a nation’s artistic production. According to Art Market Monitor, a leading art market analysis site, the total value of African art in the international auction market was estimated around USD40 million in 2014.
Analysts say that despite the fact that the presence of contemporary African art in the art market is a relatively new phenomenon; the future looks bright for contemporary artists expecting to break into the global market. According to a recently released report by Deloitte, an international consulting group, the compound annual growth rate for African art in the global auction market is 39.8Pct.
Despite the promising prospects for contemporary African art on a global scale, some stress that more needs to be done within the country in order to create a culture of art appreciation before it reap the cultural and economic benefits of a more robust contemporary art scene. EBR


4th Year • December 16 2015 – January 15 2016 • No. 34

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