ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia
The walls, domes and exteriors of the magnificent Medhane Alem Cathedral in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa are adorned with colorful portraits and life-size paintings of saints from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The saints, represented with an exaggerated size of eyes, solemnly gaze at the visitors and the faithful who gather throughout the week.
Bekele Mekonen, an scholar at the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design at the University of Addis Ababa, explains that religious paintings that began with the Christianization of Ethiopia in the 4th century have uniformly adopted a style of depicting the their subjects’ eyes larger than their normal size to “mesmerize the viewers”.
“The philosophy of the style is that it is not only the viewer who looks at the paintings, but the paintings also observe the viewers,” noted Bekele.
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 art community and academia also have big eyes that are engaged in hypnotic gazes on the issues of Ethiopian painting and sculpture,” Bekele noted.
“Hypnotic look at the problems”
Ancient religious paintings are a unique visual history and form of church teaching, Mekonen said.
From an artistic point of view, some notable contemporary Ethiopian painters had adopted specific style 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 abominably low.
“One of the most fundamental problems is societal and institutional attitudes as well as the lack of knowledge about the meaning of paintings and sculpture,” he noted.
“For some, these art forms are 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 our company’s aesthetic test is very low,” he said, adding, “Despite great works in the past, the overall artistic quality of the paintings and sculpture is not up to the target level. “
Mekonen, also a renowned sculptor, noted that since sculpture required space, it was difficult for young budding artists to have their own studios.
Mekonen added, “Further, since Ethiopia is a deeply religious society of Christians and Muslims, both religions associate sculpture with idolatrous worship, and ‘potential’ viewers, buyers and artists are virtually disinterested. “
Mifta Zeleke, a curator, told Anadolu Agency that one of the factors that hindered the growth of the art was the self-interested 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 foresee the ways and means for the development of the area.
As a result, Ethiopia has very few galleries, curators and art critics, according to Zeleke.
“We need to solve our problems to get close enough to the capitals of African art – Accra, Dakar and Johannesburg, among others,” he added.
“Challenging the art trade”
Addis Fine Arts is one of the few galleries in Addis Ababa. It was founded in 2016 by Rakeb Sile, Ethiopian American art enthusiast and Mesai Haileleul, art collector and owner of a gallery in Los Angeles.
Haileleul told the Anadolu agency that Addis Fine Arts has a gallery in London and aims to open up traditionally localized and least marketed Ethiopian painting to the global public and market.
Over the past three years, we have been successful in hosting art exhibitions in New York, Lagos, Dubai, London, and South Africa, among others, Haileleul said.
“The events introduced various Ethiopian painters to viewers and buyers around the world,” he noted, adding that the sales 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 exhibitions.”
But he said Ethiopia’s tax system “sees art as any commodity and the bill is huge and daunting.”
We hope that the reformist Ethiopian administration headed by Nobel Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will also reform the tax system, he added.
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