15 September 2014
Last updated at 01:30
Business and art are becoming increasingly entwined in the Ethiopian capital, but journalist James Jeffrey asks if this has come at a cost to creativity and true artistic experimentation.
Until recently the buying and selling of modern and contemporary art in Ethiopia was all but non-existent. The entrance to Makush Art Gallery Restaurant in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, attests to how things have changed thanks to a burgeoning new art scene. Makush has about 70 artists on its books and a collection of more than 650 paintings from which customers can choose.
“Progress is just a miracle,” says Makush owner Tesfaye Hiwet, who began visiting his homeland after the 1991 revolution that brought down the Derg, Ethiopia’s communist-inspired military dictatorship. Mr Tesfaye remembers the sorry state of Ethiopia’s economy following 17 years of botched socialist economic policies: “After the Derg fell, there was not even toilet paper.” While living in the US, he opened a restaurant and nightclub in Washington DC, decorated with Ethiopian art sourced during his visits to Addis Ababa. After noticing the lack of galleries, he moved back 12 years ago.
He opened Makush, starting with 15 artists. It combines an art gallery and an Italian-style restaurant and tourists and foreigners represent about 65% of customers, with wealthy Ethiopian exiles and local Ethiopians comprising the rest. It seems there is more money to be made in paintings than in pasta: the gallery’s revenue exceeds 6m birr ($300,000, £183,000), more than double the restaurant’s takings.
Baslael Negash, a student, admires paintings at Makush by his friend Dejene Deribe. Once artists start selling paintings around the $600 mark, they sometimes choose to leave and start their own galleries, says Makush art director Nathaniel Yohannes. This creates room for new artists at Makush, where they can have a chance to merge creative endeavours with the increasing flow of cash from the growing customer base for art in Addis Ababa.
Establishing a fair price for paintings is always treacherous territory in the art world, but it has particular relevance in an immature market. Paintings sold at Makush typically have a price cap, which Mr Tesfaye believes makes business sense by striking a balance between affordability and profitability. But this can be a source of frustration, especially for artists who have exhibited in Europe. “In Sweden I managed to sell a painting for 45,000 birr,” says 35-year-old Zekiros Tekelehaimanot, who has sold paintings at Makush since 2004.
Not all of Addis Ababa’s artists want to get involved with Makush as they argue its unabashed commercial focus means sacrificing artistic merit. “If you want to sell there the art has to be a particular type,” says Leikun Nahusenay, a graduate of the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design in Addis Ababa, who chooses to work from his own studio. “I never felt it was the right place for my art.”
Artist Tamrat Gezahegn, a friend of Mr Leikun and another graduate of the Alle School, also has reservations about Makush. He notes how paintings there are limited to scenes – such as monks and churches, the Merkato market, women leant over coffee pots – favoured by tourists and foreigners. There is little room for paintings from a more alternative art scene producing artworks like his that deconstruct stereotypical images of “authentic” Ethiopia.
Mr Leikun took me to the recently opened Guramayle Art Center. Here he discussed a painting – priced at $1,350 – by another artist, Kibrom Gebremedhin, leaving me to ponder the incongruity between such fees and the $150 monthly wages of Ethiopian teachers. Whatever the discrepancies, the demand for art in Ethiopia, and willingness to pay for it are increasing.
At Gebre Kristos Desta Center, an Addis Ababa modern art museum, paintings are found that differ from the typical fare sought by tourists and foreigners. “Many artists are increasingly enticed to market-driven productions,” says Elizabeth Giorgis, an art historian and director of the centre, who worries about runaway prices at art auctions. “Such fees lead the artist to produce what the buyer wants, which kills creativity and experimentation.”
This painting depicting a famine scene is by Gebre Kristos Desta, one of Ethiopia’s most respected modern artists. He died in 1981 and is credited with introducing modernism to Ethiopia. Although the recent emergence of a market for art in Ethiopia is generally viewed as encouraging, there are those who want to see further progress in the form of more curators, dealers and promoters amid increased artistic deliberation. “It is imperative to reveal its setbacks as these obstructions will eventually weaken the genuine growth of modern and contemporary art in our country,” Ms Elizabeth says.