“Bohemian” artists’ revolution in Ethiopia

Ethiopian painter Dawit Abebe stands in front of one of his paintings
Ethiopian painter Dawit Abebe stands in front of one of his paintings
Ethiopian painter Dawit Abebe stands in front of one of his paintings

By Aaron Maasho (AFP) , ADDIS ABABA — Ethiopian art, which for centuries has been synonymous with portraits of saints and political figures, now has a new breed of “bohemian” painters tackling bolder subjects, including sex-themed works.

In a studio littered with squeezed paint tubes and drab canvases, Dawit Abebe, one of the artists spearheading the revolution, gazes intently at his latest paintings that include nude portraits.

“You know, years back they would have been way too extreme,” he said. “Now Ethiopians have begun to understand that they’re just art, and not meant to encourage sex.”

In the olden days under the patronage of Ethiopian emperors, clerics and feudal lords, artists illustrated manuscripts, painted icons and adorned the country’s remote monasteries with depictions of doe-eyed saints and angels as their main profession.

Other popular themes were the Biblical tale of Queen Sheba, believed to be from Ethiopia, meeting King Solomon and the 1896 Battle of Adwa in which Ethiopian troops routed an Italian colonial expedition.

With the opening of a fine arts institute in the 1950s, secular and contemporary art emerged under the tutelage of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, who strived to modernise his agrarian and backward nation.

But that trend fell off the rails soon afterwards.

Once a brutal Marxist junta took power in 1974, artists were encouraged to depict communist ideals, and filled the capital with giant paintings of the trinity of Lenin, Marx and Engels.

“You could be suspected of being anti-revolutionary for painting ‘western’ styles,” recalls university professor Zerihun Yetmgeta, who is also one of Ethiopia’s most renowned artists.

However, Ethiopia’s present-day artists — branded “bohemians” for their unconventional styles — have sprung up, upsetting the historic portraits scene with more daring and vivid works.

The first edition of the “Art of Ethiopia” last year attracted 87 artists. The number more than doubled to 200 this year.

“We work when we’re inspired. It could take us a day, or even an hour, upon finishing one project to start another,” said Dawit, standing next to his best works selected for an upcoming exhibition.

The director of the French cultural centre, the Alliance Ethio-Francaise, Denis-Charles Courdent, said he is impressed by the “incredible diversity” of art in the Horn of Africa state.

The cultural centre is one of just a handful of exhibition spaces in Ethiopia and the shortage of galleries has posed a hurdle to the rise of the country’s contemporary artists.

The burgeoning of the new art has also been hobbled by a limited market and lack of schools.

Prices range from 200 dollars to 2,800 dollars (150 euros to 2,000 euros) per work — well above the national per capita income, and sales are few and far between.

“These are tough times for Ethiopian painters. It’s … not easy for them to sustain a steady income,” said Courdent, whose centre receives 10 percent out of every sale in an exhibition.

Nonetheless, modern artists relish the freedom of expression that came with the 1991 downfall of Ethiopia’s Marxist regime and which eased conservative attitudes.

Trigger-happy officials during Mengistu Haile Mariam’s 17-year military regime needed no more than a slight suspicion to clamp down on perceived dissenters.

“It had an immense impact on creativity as everyone was obliged to focus on red stars and hammers and sickles, nothing else,” said Zerihun, whose students have been on the forefront of modern art.

Zerihun brushed off the economic hardships faced by the artists.

“It’s a lifetime struggle, but one’s motive should be expression of oneself… not money.”