The visual language NGOs use to show the developing world is often sombre, designed to shock our senses by highlighting the desperate situations of communities fleeing persecution or natural disaster. Think of Ethiopia, for example, and the images that immediately come to mind are of a country plagued by drought and famine. What is less recognised is that the country, which stretches over the Horn of Africa, is also home to fields of lush agricultural land, and expanses of green nourished by mountainous lakes. But it was this vibrant image that Oxfam sought to convey in its 75th- anniversary collaboration with Annie Sloan paint, a brand more often seen on the pages of glossy interiors magazines.
The idea for the collaboration came when Eleanor Farmer, a film and photography producer at Oxfam, was on a trip in Sicily and noticed brightly-coloured refugee boats lined up on the beach. Spurred into thinking about the influence colour can have on storytelling, she approached Sloan – who in turn was inspired to create a new chalk-based product, referencing the colours of Ethiopia, in which Oxfam has an established aid programme.
Teaming up with photographer Tina Hillier, the trio travelled to the East African country – from the Somali Region, west to Oromia, and on to Harah, an ancient ward city known for its brightly coloured houses. Hillier, whose former clients include Airbnb, Rolls-Royce and Burberry, isn’t usually associated with NGO projects but, given her use of colour in her work, felt like a natural choice.
“It was nice to work with someone who saw an Oxfam project with a new eye,” says Farmer. “I don’t know what NGO photography is anyway – it’s more about getting our messages out and collaborating with people who work with integrity.”
Given the openness of the brief, they were able to approach the journey without preconceptions – even the colour of the paint wasn’t established until after the trip. “No one knew what was going to happen,” says Hillier. “But that gave me free rein to be very visual and look at a place in terms of colour and in an abstract way, which was really liberating. It was exciting exploring the country, the history and the culture all together, brainstorming – and watching Annie’s creative process.”
Launched in October, the resulting paint was called Lem Lem after an Ethiopian word associated with flourishing. It’s a light, creamy green, inspired by the allium fields Sloan saw in Ethiopia, and it’s now one of her top-selling shades – with £5 from every pot sold going towards farming families in the country. When asked what they would buy with the donated funds, one group of villagers said furniture – a bed or chair to raise up the many families who sleep in the same rooms as their cows and dogs – something which Hillier found particularly pleasing.
“I like the correlation – the fact that people will be painting their London homes in this colour, which is enabling other people to buy their first piece of furniture,” she says. “Ethiopia has done a huge amount to combat the reputation of being a charity case – I was keen to present a different picture of Ethiopia, and excited to show a different visual narrative and create images that are positive and hopeful, to shed a new light on a place that people don’t necessarily go to.”
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