ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia
The walls, domes and exteriors of the magnificent Medhane Alem Cathedral in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa are adorned with colorful portraits and life-size paintings of saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Saints, depicted with exaggerated eye size, gaze solemnly at visitors and worshipers who gather throughout the week.
Bekele Mekonen, an academic at Addis Ababa University’s Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, explains that religious paintings that began with the Christianization of Ethiopia in the 4th century uniformly adopted a style of depicting the their subjects’ eyes larger than their normal size to “hypnotize the viewers”.
“The philosophy of the style is that it is not just the viewer who watches the paintings, but the paintings also watch the viewers,” Bekele noted.
According to Mekonen, despite centuries of artistic tradition and nearly a century of education, contemporary secularized and westernized Ethiopian painting and sculpture are “in dire straits”.
“Today, the artistic community and academia also have wide eyes that are engaged in hypnotic gazes at the issues of Ethiopian painting and sculpture,” Bekele noted.
“Hypnotic Look at Problems”
Ancient religious paintings are a unique visual history and form of church teachings, Mekonen said.
From an artistic point of view, some notable contemporary Ethiopian painters have adopted specific stylistic elements in religious paintings, he added.
According to Mekonen, despite centuries of artistic tradition and nearly a century of academic training, the overall level of contemporary painting and sculpture was woefully low.
“One of the most fundamental issues is societal and institutional attitudes as well as the lack of knowledge about the meaning of paintings and sculptures,” he noted.
“For some, these art forms are a luxury and play no role in the material and spiritual development of our society,” Bekele lamented.
According to him, such attitudes have had a negative impact on the expansion of government and private academic institutions.
“We hope this will change in the future, but currently the aesthetic test of our society is very low,” he said, adding, “Despite some great works in the past, the overall artistic quality of the paintings and of the sculptures is not up to the aspired level.”
Mekonen, also a renowned sculptor, noted that since sculpture required space, it was difficult for budding young artists to have their own studio.
Mekonen added, “Furthermore, as Ethiopia is a deeply religious society of Christians and Muslims, both religions associate the carvings with idolatrous worship, and ‘potential’ viewers, buyers and performers are virtually disinterested.
Mifta Zeleke, a curator, told Anadolu Agency that one of the factors that has hampered the growth of the art has been the self-serving attention given by successive Ethiopian governments to the profession.
Governments only hire painters when they need propaganda posters, paintings and sculptures, he said.
Zeleke added, “The cultural policy of the country does not provide the ways and means for the development of the field.”
Therefore, Ethiopia has very few galleries, curators and art critics, according to Zeleke.
“We need to solve our problems to get close enough to African art capitals – Accra, Dakar and Johannesburg, among others,” he added.
“The Challenge of Art”
Addis Fine Arts is one of the few galleries in Addis Ababa. It was founded in 2016 by Rakeb Sile, an Ethiopian American art enthusiast and Mesai Haileleul, an art collector and gallery owner in Los Angeles.
Haileleul told Anadolu Agency that Addis Fine Arts has a gallery in London and aims to open up traditionally localized and less commercialized Ethiopian painting to the global public and market.
Over the past three years, we have successfully held art exhibitions in New York, Lagos, Dubai, London and South Africa, among others,” Haileul said.
“The events introduced various Ethiopian painters to viewers and buyers around the world,” he noted, adding that the sale value of the paintings had been a huge reward for the artists.
Haileleul added, “As we are connected to the market, we sell in different ways, without exposures.”
But he said Ethiopia’s tax system “considers art like any commodity and the bill is huge and daunting”.
We hope that the reformist Ethiopian administration led by Nobel Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will also reform the tax system, he added.
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