James Jeffrey
James Jeffrey

Ethiopia’s emerging art scene pits creativity against profits

Local painters forgo experimentation to cater to growing number of foreign buyers

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Tesfaye Hiwet started visiting his homeland from the U.S. shortly after the 1991 revolution that brought down Ethiopia’s communist-inspired military dictatorship known as the Derg. One reason was to source art for his Washington-based restaurant and nightclub.

After noticing the lack of galleries in the Ethiopian capital, he moved back to Addis Ababa 12 years ago and opened the Makush Art Gallery and  Restaurant, starting with a handful of artists. Nowadays, every wall in Makush is blanketed with vivid Ethiopian paintings depicting scenes ranging from monks praying in the dawn half-light to bustling markets and images of wide-eyed, elongated women.

Makush owner Tesfaye Hiwet relaxing in his office, surrounded by paintings, which make up more than half his business.
James Jeffrey

Addis Ababa has an active art community that can benefit from the lucrative sales at Makush, which now has about 70 artists on its books and a collection of more than 650 paintings.

But not all the city’s artists want to get involved with Makush because of its unabashed commercial focus — at the sacrifice, they argue, of artistic merit. They worry the gallery represents an unfettered art market where lack of analysis and criticism can compromise artistic integrity, drive runaway prices and lead to the prevalence of mediocre art that doesn’t express the true range of artistic talent simmering away.

“Many artists are increasingly enticed to market-driven productions,” said Elizabeth Giorgis, an art historian and director of the Gebre Kristos Desta Center, a modern art museum in Addis Ababa. “The current Ethiopian art market has produced a dark side where prices are ineptly assessed and fixed at exorbitant prices that do not warrant the credibility or skills of the artists.”

But an emergent modern and contemporary art scene in energetic flux is a stark contrast from when Ethiopia had no market at all.

“Ethiopia’s growing economy is key,” said Makush art director Nathaniel Yohannes. “Young Ethiopians are opening businesses and buying paintings, and new international organizations are coming to the city.” 

A lunch crowd at Makush Art Gallery and Restaurant, popular with foreigners and tourists.
James Jeffrey

Last year the United Nations Development Programme opened an office on Bole Road, a major thoroughfare leading from the city’s international airport. Some of its 75 staffers have lunch at the restaurant and decide to buy paintings by meal’s end, Yohannes said.

Foreigners and tourists represent about 65 percent of the customers at Makush’s combined art gallery and Italian-style restaurant, while wealthy members of the Ethiopian diaspora and locals make up the rest. Evidence indicates there is significantly more money to be made in paintings than in pasta: Revenue from artwork exceeded 6 million Ethiopian birr ($300,000) last year — more than double the restaurant’s profits.

“Progress is just a miracle. After the Derg fell there was not even toilet paper,” Hiwet said of the state of the country after 17 years of botched socialist economic policies.

Business noticeably started to pick up six years ago, he recalled, around when Makush began accepting Visa payments. Credit card transactions still aren’t common among Addis Ababa businesses. After the change, Hiwet said, Makush sold three times as many paintings.

Also, Ethiopians are increasingly giving paintings as gifts for weddings and other occasions instead of the previous standard of poster-size framed photographic portraits or gold jewelry. Paintings are viewed as more sophisticated and desirable in the changing socioeconomic landscape.

While this is good news for those artists struggling to pay rent each month, concerns  remain about venues like Makush.

The current Ethiopian art market has produced a dark side where prices are ineptly assessed and fixed at exorbitant prices that do not warrant the credibility or skill of the artists.

Elizabeth Giorgis

art historian and museum director

Artist Leikun Nahusenay, a graduate of Alle School of Fine Arts and Design in Addis Ababa, said his work doesn’t fit Makush’s commercial aesthetic.
James Jeffrey

“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.”

Artist Zekiros Tekelehaimanot with two of his paintings at Makush.
James Jeffrey

This dissatisfaction led Giorgis to help organize the 2014 Addis Art Fair earlier this year — an attempt to bring more affordable and diverse art to a broader local market.

Paintings were priced at a maximum of 8,000 birr ($400). During the four-day event 10,000 people — mostly locals — arrived to view 500 paintings and bought 130 of them.

Other attempts to embolden Addis Ababa’s emerging art market include an online map of the city’s art centers. The mapping project was initiated by Goethe-Institut Addis Ababa, a German organization that promotes cultural cooperation.

The institute also works closely with local grass-roots arts communities such as Netsa Art Village, which emphasizes artistic freedom and experimentation.

“This is all part of trying to professionalize [the local market] without losing the flavor,” said the institute’s director, Irmtraut Hubatsch.

The volume of budding artists in the capital means Makush has no trouble securing talent. After artists start selling paintings around the 12,000 birr mark, they sometimes leave and start their own galleries. This creates room for new artists.

Although the emergence of an art market is generally encouraging, Giorgis called for more accountability in the form of art critics, curators, dealers and promoters.

“It’s not to curb the market but to ensure good quality, creativity and experimentation instead of [art] being cocooned,” she said. “I’m glad artists are getting money, but what type of art are they producing?”

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