Ethiopia’s emerging art scene pits creativity against profits

“If you want to sell there, the art has to be a particular type,” said 31-year-old Leikun Nahusenay, a graduate of Alle School of Fine Arts and Design in Addis Ababa. “I never felt it was the right place for my art.”

He experiments with various media, including photographs in which he overlays images from multiple exposures.

Artist Tamrat Gezahegn, 35, another Alle graduate, noted how paintings at Makush are limited to scenes — monks and churches, the Merkato market, women leaning over coffee pots — typically favored by tourists and other foreigners. There is little room for more alternative artwork like Gezahegn’s, which deconstructs stereotypical images of Ethiopia.

Establishing a fair price for paintings is always treacherous territory in the art world, but it has particular relevance in an immature market such as Ethiopia’s.

Paintings sold at Makush typically have a cap of 12,000 birr ($600), but this can frustrate artists who have exhibited in Europe and elsewhere.

“In Sweden I managed to sell a painting for 45,000 Ethiopian birr [$2,250],” said 35-year-old Zekiros Tekelehaimanot, who has sold paintings at Makush since 2004.

But even windfalls from overseas exhibitions pale in comparison to the 300,000 birr ($15,000) fees for paintings sold at the Art of Ethiopia exhibition held each year in the luxury confines of the Sheraton Hotel, inhabiting what can seem a parallel universe in the center of Addis Ababa.

“Such fees lead the artist to produce what the buyer wants, which kills creativity and experimentation,” Giorgis said. “Art does not grow in this sort of situation.”

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