With the coronavirus pandemic outliving its expected short term stay in the world, early international measures of total and partial lockdown seem to have abated. Mankind has tapped into its age-old skill of adaptation to revert back to normal life under a pandemic-ravaged world. As a key example of a sector that has been severely affected by the pandemic, the fine arts business has been forced to bend forcefully under the tidal waves of isolation. However, a new approach is on the horizon. EBR’s Dawit Astatike looks into the rising trend of virtual art exhibitions.
Leykun Nahusenay is a young man in his late thirties. He spent half of his life struggling to stay true to his soul with the body wilting in the yet unrewarding Ethiopian realm of fine arts. He lives and paints in an historic single-story mud building near Ras Mekonnen Bridge, a bridge around Piazza named after Emperor Haile Selassie’s father, Ras Mekonnen Wolde Michael. Leykun has spent more than two decades in the three-room house he calls both home and studio.
The art community has only a handful of platforms to showcase and market their works as the discipline enjoys scant attention. For the second most populous country in Africa with over 110 million people, the number of galleries is very few in number. Information from the Addis Ababa City Administration Culture and Tourism Bureau indicates that there are close to fifty privately owned art galleries in the city. Of course, there are some public museums that collect different pieces of fine art.
Almost all art galleries are confined to Addis Ababa with only a few keeping their doors open throughout the week. Makush Art Gallery is the only gallery open for all days in the week.
The number of visitors is also unsatisfactory even when during art exhibitions. Leykun stated in disappointment, “in a capital city with more than 5 million people, the number of visitors may not reach two thousand during art exhibitions.”
However, time and technology seem to have conspired to open a new door for Ethiopian artists who have been desperately looking for a leeway into the world. “The introduction of virtual art exhibitions will bring more visitors and income to artists, if we can use it,” remarked Leykun with a sensible tone of hope in his voice.
Virtual art exhibitions involve the display of artwork in a gallery or standard hotel setting, a video production featuring the artwork in display, and posting the video on social media platforms with links providing detailed information about each work. They also provide a digital platform for buyer and seller to negotiate and discuss on price and specifics.
Tewodros Alemayehu is another artist hoping to make the best out of the coronavirus pandemic-induced craze of virtual art exhibitions. “The outbreak of COVID-19 disrupted all sorts of business in every corner of the world and closed the limited space we had,” remarked Tewodros.
Tewodros has been in the art industry for the last five years. Both Tewodros and Leykun think that foreign cultural institutes such as the Goethe Institute and Alliance Ethio-Française broaden the limited space for the art community to display their works and attain international exposure. Leykun had the opportunity to display his artwork in Europe with the help of cultural institutes operating in Addis.
With the pandemic forcing states to close their borders and halt external interactions, Tewodros thinks the art environment in Ethiopia has become more stagnant than previously. He pointed out that the situation has forced artists like him to seek a new way of displaying their work and connecting with potential buyers.
There are a couple of fine art galleries that display Ethiopian artworks to international audiences. However, the challenge of keeping galleries open and drawing visitors during the pandemic has forced artists to shift to virtually exhibiting their works of art.
The journey towards virtual art exhibitions
For Eyayu Genet, a Fine Arts Lecturer at Bahir Dar University, virtual art has been evolving in Ethiopia over the past six years following the wide use of social media, particularly facebook. The feature of the platform by itself makes artwork more visible as friends share it, invite friends to like the pages, and so on. “The platform brought up new opportunities for artists to display their artwork as it easily reaches the international art community,” stated Eyayu. According to him, the platform also paves the way for companies to focus on Ethiopian art.
Next Canvas is an online gallery platform where many artists display and sell their works. Especially during the harsh realities of the pandemic, the platform has proven vital in keeping artists in business. In virtual art exhibitions displayed thus far, the curator uses Amharic and English languages to reach out to the art community in various corners of the world. Occasionally, Arabic can be found in subtitles.
For Leykun, staying for a couple of decades in the national art environment has made it relatively easier for him to connect with art lovers, exhibition organizers, and major actors in the market. “The virtual gallery is the way forward to present one’s work to the art community with no geographic and time limitations. However, this is not the sole advantage,” Leykun added.
The platform provides the artist with an opportunity to earn more for their work and creates room for them to communicate directly with potential buyers. The other advantage of using virtual exhibitions is that they help collect a large amount of feedback on a specific artwork posted on Facebook, Instagram, or other social media platforms. Such media generate discussion, alerting art lovers about the work and helping the artist access the opinions of the audience.
Fendika’s art gallery organized the second virtual art exhibition two months ago in a bid to motivate the art community and connect Ethiopian artwork with the international community. The virtual gallery tour featured room for conversing with artists, sounds of traditional instrumental music, and explanations of exhibited works.
In virtual art exhibitions, artworks are specified by title, size, classification, and links that provide detailed information. Eyayu claims to have witnessed the effectiveness of the platform in connecting with visitors and getting a reasonable price for both buyer and seller as no agent is involved in between. Eyayu, who has sold his own works through the virtual platform and collected the payment via electronic banking, told EBR that the payment modality is reliable.
For Daniel Alemayehu, a contemporary artist with a dozen years of experience, fine arts demand the steel and craft to find meaning to life, search its beauty, and develop strength instead of complaining about problems. He thinks that that feature makes the discipline genuine as it connects people with real life.
The number of art exhibitions is limited as virtual exhibitions still need artworks to be displayed in a standard gallery setting. Hosting the pictures in such a setting requires a lofty amount of money for an individual artist to cover. Therefore, artists have resorted to collaborating and organizing virtual exhibitions with agents and galleries.
In most cases, less than ten conventional art exhibitions are organized annually. Leykun thinks virtual platforms have the potential to solve these and other limitations of conventional art exhibitions.EBR
9th Year • Oct 16 – Nov 15 2020 • No. 91