With the proliferation of advanced technologies in Ethiopia – like smartphones, tablets and digital cameras – artists have now turned to video art as a medium of expression. Experts agree that video art is an important medium, especially for Ethiopian artists to capture the rapid and complicated nature of economic development. EBR’s adjunct staff writer Meseret Mamo spoke with artists and academicians to learn more about the promise and potential roadblocks facing video art in Ethiopia.
Video art, which relies on moving pictures in a visual and audio medium, is one form of art that has gained traction as an effective technique by which artists can express themselves. In Ethiopia many artists are already using video as a means to articulate their artistic visions.
Mulugeta Gebrekidan, who graduated from Addis Ababa University’s Ale School of Fine Arts and Design in 1992 and has been painting since then, is among the artists trying to develop video art in the country. He says he’s driven by a desire to push himself to explore new visual media: “I’m inclined to create artistic work in another medium other than the two-dimensional canvas. Video art is one medium I became interested in four years ago.”
Part of video art’s appeal, he says, is that it allows artists to present real-life images in a timely and compelling manner. “I was watching Addis Ababa being demolished and everyday places that have so many memories being rebuilt; I began to take these pictures,” he recalls. “Then, I wanted these photos to be displayed in motion picture apparatus, so I chose video because it is difficult to display the photos with motion using other technologies.”
In a video lecture series on African art, Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis (PhD), an art historian at Addis Ababa University and Director of the Modern Art Museum: Gebre Kristos Desta Centre, says that video art is an effective medium, especially at this juncture in the country’s history: “Ethiopia’s going through a massive transformation in the area of development…neighbourhoods are being dismantled …. Video art has become very important to catch the moment because things are really disappearing, disintegrating really fast – and with that memories are being destroyed as well. [This] cannot really be fully depicted through the medium of painting. Video art is what catches the moment – what the [economic] transformation means in the Ethiopian context.”
In addition to artists like Mulugeta who use video to create artistic works, the inaugural Addis Video Art Festival, which was held between December 23, 2015 and January 3, 2016, is another sign of the popularity of video art among local artists.
During the Festival, which was initiated by Ezra Wube, a New York-based Ethiopian artist, and others, 16 selected art works were displayed out of the 530 submitted from 76 countries around the world. The organisers also say 11 pieces made by Ethiopians were displayed to encourage and motivate local artists.
“We displayed these art works in more than 30 places, including supermarkets and under the light railway tunnels and people enjoyed watching the videos,” says Mihiret Kebede, an artist and one of the organisers of the Festival. “I am glad that we were able generate conversation among the public.”
The second Addis Video Art Festival is scheduled for December 2016. The organisers say events like these are opportunities for artists to engage with one another and exchange ideas. “Many [artists] are isolated in their studios while the world is changing dramatically. This is why artists should update themselves and use new technologies to create artistic works,” argues Mihiret.
Birhanu Ashagre, Director of Ale School of Fine Arts and Design, agrees with this assessment. “When painting is unable to express the artist’s idea and feeling, there will come a need of another medium of putting ideas in the art work,” he says. “The move away from old school thoughts and methods of doing art is inevitable not only in Ethiopia but around the world.”
Globally, video art usually appears in two forms: single-channel and installation. In single-channel works, a video is screened, projected or shown as a single series of images. Installations typically comprise either an environment made up of several distinct pieces of video screened simultaneously, or a combination of video with performance art. However, currently installation video is the most common form of video art, combining elements of architecture, design, sculpture, electronic and digital art.
One of the key differences between video art and cinema films is that video art does not necessarily rely on many of the conventions that define theatrical cinema – like narrative arc or dialogue – leaving room for artists to express complex ideas through a number of methods.
Despite the positive attributes – and growing popularity – of video art, it faces certain challenges compared to other media, especially in the global art market. According to Art Media Agency, a news organisation that focuses on the global art market, “video art occupies a complex…position in the contemporary art market. Though a younger generation of artists…may feel at ease with the technological nature of video art, the works themselves do not necessarily sit comfortably alongside more traditional pieces in the homes of high-end collectors, or even in the ubiquitous art fairs that dominate today’s art market.”
Yet, the Art Media Agency says that while difficult to collect, store and sell, video art is beginning to make an impression within the art market, especially among tech-savvy collectors and in international art fairs, sometimes even fetching hefty prices.
However, while many artists are gravitating towards video art, stakeholders complain that local artists are not exposed to it. “Unless Ethiopian artists go to international exhibitions and find a place for them in the rapidly changing world, it is difficult to make progress in this regard in Ethiopia,” argues Mulugeta.
In addition to the lack of awareness, Birhanu says the teaching methods at the Ale School of Fine Arts and Design is a hindering factor. “[Professors] still teach using traditional thoughts and methods,” he stresses. “This has been a big challenge for local artists to understand and compete with the evolving art culture in the contemporary world.”
Elizabeth says more needs to be done to elevate the relevance of video art in Ethiopia: “The video art being produced [locally] isn’t that sophisticated because…technology is new [and] hard to find. So with all those limitations, artists are still producing critical and cutting-edge works. What’s really concerning is that they’re not really getting the platform in the African art market in the Western world because their material source is not that [developed].”
To remedy this, people at the School of Fine Arts and Design tried to revise the curriculum by incorporating new methods and media. However, Birhanu argues that there are not enough qualified instructors and facilities to teach students this particular art form. “[We] invite international artists and prepare workshops for students and local artists so that they at least know what is going on in the contemporary art world,” he says. “For the past six years that was what the school has been doing, since it takes time and effort to incorporate contemporary art concepts in the curriculum under the current circumstance.” EBR
4th Year • September 16 2016 – October 15 2016 • No. 43