Probably a decade ago, there were few art galleries to preserve, present and educate on Ethiopia's art legacy. However with the growing demand to invest in fine arts and sculptures, this has changed lately. The number of art collectors has also showed a significant growth lately. Unlike the trend observed few years ago, people are now willing to pay thousands of Birr, if not in millions, to buy creative works of artists.
The first thing to notice about Amen Badeg, a young artist, is how much he values his beautifully tailored Ethiopian traditional attire. He looked polished, modern wearing locally made clothing that is often embraced by older generations.
Moving hectically around a Bazaar and Exhibition, promoting his art of unique creations of metal sculptures, and being asked who designed his own clothing inside the compound of the Embassy of the Czech Republic, it seemed he was fast becoming an instant sensation. To him, it had taken almost a life-time.
He became interested in sculptures and paintings at a young age. He struggled within a society that does not really recognize such art along the way. However, he got his breakthrough four years ago, when he joined the Addis Ababa River Side Project. He made it his mission to be part of the project by producing animal sculptures from metal scraps with two goals in mind, contributing towards recycling and beautifying Addis.
“When I started this project, I just wanted to contribute to the cause, but being at the receiving end of opportunities to attract a huge market and receive publicity was not in my plan”, he said, as he offered a smile of an artist who had arrived at a destination after much trial and tribulations.
Currently, he has made 15 sculptures which are from 90cm to 2 meters long with prices ranging from 50,000 Birr to 850,000 Birr each. Back at the Bazaar and Exhibition, he was able to sell six of his sculptures with a modest 600,000 Birr as he interacted and explained his art to the diplomatic core of the capital. He was taken aback by the feedback he received – positive and construction especially by local Ethiopians who once shunned his kinds of art.
“It was once a challenge to have locals understand the concept behind my art. I am now beginning to see a huge shift in the mindset of the public towards the economic and social benefits that come with supporting such a sector and that is culturally and financially” he said as he wrapped up a fulfilling day on a sunny Addis few days before the European Christmas break.
Historically speaking, decades ago, the approach towards art has a different narrative. Ethiopian artists often bestowed their art pieces to the royal family to the nobility without the need for monetary compensation. In case the painting has a religious message, it is given to the churches without the signature of the artist; this act is thought to be righteous. For this reason, art is not embedded in the societal culture and way of life.
Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, Ethiopia’s creative industry has drastically changed for the better. However, it is still barely existent compared to other countries. “Although the art industry has shown remarkable progress, the shortage of inputs and the lack of recognition from the government’s side has made the road towards the surging development of the art industry challenging,” says Aynalem G. Mariam, a member at the Ethiopian Women’s Art Association.
Having 40 years of experience, she had the opportunity to travel around the world displaying her works at various art exhibitions. It is her keen observation that the availability of inputs such as paints and brushes at a lower price yet with significant standards affects the final products.
In Ethiopia, one oil paint tube is sold for 250-300 Birr if it’s imported from China. While if one is fortunate to get a quality oil paint tube, it can cost as high as 600-800 Birr putting many challenges to local artists who want to market their products as affordable as possible.
The president of the Ethiopian Visual Art Association, Artist Aklilu Mengistu has few controversial theories regarding the flourishing art market in Ethiopia. More and more artists are converting their focus from a naturalism and realism concept to an abstract art form and a naturalism and realism art, portraying the real objects in a natural setting avoiding speculative fiction.
While abstract art uses a visual language of shape, form, color, and line to create a composition that may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world. An honorable mention is the questionable art piece that can be a puzzling description of the creativity of the 21st century, the contemporary sculpture art titled ‘Comedian’ which showcases a banana duct-taped to the wall.
This art piece was part of an international art fair named Art Basel held in December 2019, at the stunning Miami Beach. Two bananas that were awkwardly tapped to the walls sold for 120,000 USD each. While for the last piece, various art collectors had a bidding war that raised the price to a wapping 150,000 USD. While the current art culture in Ethiopia is characterized by the abstract art form, which is easy to mimic and reproduce. Hence, the price of the paintings is deemed affordable and marketed at a lower price.
“The market is functioning with the fuel of foreign art fanatics and few Ethiopian art admirers.’’, Aynalem said.
The commercial potential of visual arts in this city is yet to be explored in Ethiopia. This comes as art is making a decent living wage to long-struggling artists as many take advantage of local exhibitions and galleries that not only afford them opportunities to sell but connect with international partners.
Aklilu defies Aynalem’s claims on the government’s lack of appreciation towards the art industry since the government has embarked on a new road that is displaying unity by designating projects for renowned artists.
A fine demonstration is the Unity Park, which has broken ground in 2018 and bloomed into a 40-hectare paradise that narrates Ethiopia by displaying various creative art pieces. The same is true for Entoto Park, which is constructed and inaugurated by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD.) at an altitude of 2600 to 3200 meters and has 10km of roadway for cycling and 13km for hiking. This park is beautified with various artworks and sculptures contributed by Ethiopian artists.
Having dedicated 45 years of his life to the art industry, Aklilu has produced paintings and taught at different art institutions including Addis Ababa University School of Fine Arts. Having mentored artists that are highly praised today, he never fails to mention the market-oriented paintings that are mushrooming in Ethiopia.
“I would like to admire the advanced marketing and networking skills that have enhanced the profits of the new era’ artists.’’, he said.
He claims that producing art pieces in mass has made the price considerably affordable to Ethiopian art collectors who are believed to be among the upper and middle-income-class citizens.
The galleries in Addis are also the main grounds that highlight various artists’ creations. A great mention is Alem Gallery and Coffee that is located around Gergi in Addis Ababa. Owned and administered by Artist Alem Getachew it has opened its doors throughout the week for the past 10 years now.
There is a distinct specialty of these welcoming small corners, for it pulls customers by serving hot drinks, which is later followed by an invitation to draw whatever your heart desires. This idea came to Alem a few years after she established her art school for kids at the same location.
Being an eager observant, she has noticed the boredom on the parents' faces for they have to sit for hours while their kids perfect their skills of drawing. She introduced the 'practice of drawing while waiting for your kids' to keep the parents busy, which later on became a hit and made the spot one of the best coffee places in town.
“I have realized that integrating various activities such as poetry nights, book readings, serving hot drinks, and inviting the customers to paint is a wise way of introducing art to our society” Alem, a woman whose work is gaining a following said.
At this gallery, the painting is produced to your likings and as per your pockets. Currently, the gallery displays 17 artists ‘arts with the price ranging from 3000 Birr and more.
Alem also advised that good art is multi-generational whose values increases and can be passed from one to the other while holding on to an era that is in our past that can be used as a teaching tool to those that need to embrace history, culture, and people that is “our Ethiopia”, summed up in Ethiopian art.