Addis Contemporary II is the second iteration showcasing the works of Ethiopian artists at Circle Art Agency in Nairobi, Kenya. Mifta Zeleke, curator of the exhibition and founder of Guramayne Art Center has been tirelessly creating a supporting ecosystem to the local visual arts scene. This exhibition is evidence of Mifta’s desire to break Ethiopia’s isolation from the east African art world.
Circle Art Agency has been a strong presence in East Africa since its establishment in 2012. The gallery also held an artist talk between a selection of the featured artists moderated by curator and co-founder of the artist collective Contemporary Nights, Sarah Bushra. The discussion highlighted the necessity of cross-national knowledge building and showcasing works by East African artists more frequently. There are a lot of movements, collectives, studios that share similar visions, and creating collaborative networks can only help the industry grow.
“This second version of ‘Addis Contemporary II, 6 years on’ can be regarded as a snapshot of how the Addis art scene has flourished from the fertile bedrock of the modernist period,” writes Mifta in his introduction to the exhibition. “The participating artists are a cross-section, representing the determined growth of the city’s art scene. We can see a thematic and stylistic range; from the modernist painter Tibebe Terffa’s sustained practice of aesthetics to the established and emerging artists who bring vigorous academic skills; research and contemporary approaches to making art.”
The first edition of Addis Contemporary in 2016 presented the works of 11 artists and focused more on showing these artists’ perspectives of a quickly changing Addis Ababa. This edition brought a diverse selection of artists, both new and well-established, residing in Ethiopia and abroad, giving a glimpse of the variety of practices and the influences behind the works.
Tibebe Terffa’s Untitled II showcases this giant’s long career spanning 50 years. He has worked in various styles and taught painting for several years.
Leayne Tilahun’s Reminiscence I is an emotionally charged painting depicting a dreamlike scene with figures emerging out of the fog. Some figures are in a tight embrace, others with heads bowed as if in defeat, or raised in what could be prayer. The scene is one of revelation, slowly unpeeling layers to expose suffering within the human condition.
Girmachew Getnet’s Untitled triptych is in reference to the legendary battle and victory of King Agapos/Agabos over the giant snake Wainimba. “I think of the system we are governed by now as the giant snake, getting bigger and bigger each time it feeds on our peace, unity, love, wisdom, and fears. The entire system around our world is against the human circle, the human community. Humans were created to live freely, but with moral freedom. And I say, just like Agapo used his message to kill Wainimba, I believe I can also battle this system dividing and wearying us through my art,” he writes in his artist statement. This mixed media work of acrylic, clay pencil, charcoal on natural artboard elegantly combines painting and drawing techniques.
Tamirat Gezahegn is one of three artists to be featured in both Addis Contemporary exhibitions. His earlier works on canvas were based on his extensive study of different indigenous Ethiopian cultures. Tamirat now uses acrylic and paper mache on wood board. In Adorne Body, the subject matter is similar but his practice has become more experimental as the composition has grown simplified and more vibrant. His works are investigations of the conflict, symbiosis, and harmony between the natural and the manmade world, ruminating on how balance is achieved. “I need things to coalesce, to be in balance. Urbanity, cities are all over the world. We see life interacting with nature and civilization. They’re either in harmony or pushing each other. I present nature through organic shapes and city life by geometric shapes,” he explained at the artist talk held at Circle Art Agency.
Amare Selfu’s work Untitled I, is inspired by his own experiences. He’s interested in mental mapping, the boundary lines between cultures, language, places, people, and the meaning behind these lines. “If we look at the English language, for instance, there’s a communication gap. It becomes a tool for alienation, to ‘other’. The ephemeral line is tuned real — but if there are no such boundaries, where do we belong? Those are the questions I ask.” Amare was the former head of the painting department at Ale School of Fine Art and is currently teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and Montgomery College.
Meron Hailu’s Landscape II, delicately crocheted pieces and yards of yarn spin and swirl to create this dream-like landscape. One of the few artists expertly working in textile art, Meron is also an instructor at Ale School of Fine Art’s graphics department.
Tiemar Tegene’s gripping pieces Lefty and Mask Off are small prints on paper. Her subjects live on the edge, pushed and rejected, there remains a swirl of powerful energy surrounding them. Tiemar will soon have her first solo exhibition at Guramayne that should bring more of works to the public.
Another artist that’s been a part of both editions of Addis Contemporary is Surafel Amare. Presence I, Presence, and Twins, the three paintings in this exhibition show elements of Surafel’s signature style that no doubt emerged from his education in graphic design and practice in various mediums. Printmaking and patterns are recurrent in his work and his close observation of people and the composition of city life informs his practice. He is process-driven, as evident in the layering of paint, the lines and borders drawn in the composition, in his use of wax paint, and the underlying patterns he often uses.
Ashenafi Mestika’s works are also part of Addis Contemporary II. Ashenafi recently graduated from Ale School of Fine Art but has been working as a painter, photographer, filmmaker and has been exhibiting his works for several years. Alexander Tadesse’s selfie portrait highlights the ubiquitousness of smart phone screen viewing.
Selome Muleta’s paintings were also part of this exhibition. Selome often paints women figures along with ordinary objects, highlighting the significance of familiarity in establishing intimacy. Her career may be in its early stages but her success in the last couple of years signals a promising future for Selome.
Engedaget Legesse Amede’s Empty Room (05) plays with the contrast of emptiness and abundance while Dereje Demissie’s imaginary landscapes examine the relationship between people and the environment. Engidaye Lemma’s works tell the story of rapid urbanization, depicting old, worn down houses and demolished sites as a testament to the ugly side of ‘modernization’. Henok Getachew’s Earth Hour and other works examine climate change, environmental issues, and society.
Kidus Bezzawork’s boundary-breaking paintings, Eyasu Tilayeneh’s abstract, powerful colors as well as Kirubel Abebe’s contemplative, deeply personal portraits are also a part of the exhibition. These three emerging artists are already putting their marks in Addis Ababa’s art scene.
“There are so many artists of great potential. I like thinking about how artists think and covert that into making art. Guramayne is a place for artists to gather and work. If I see potential I try to engage myself in their process, to see how they invest themselves in the work, to enable them, and enable myself to have a better understanding,” explained Mifta at the artist talk. “This exhibition has a different context from the first Addis Contemporary. I tried to bring a nucleus, nectar of what Addis has to offer. We can have 10 or 12 different shows of that of course but I had to approach artists of different experiences. There are modernists like Tibebe and young ones like Lij Kidus. Even those abroad are included because they’ve made a great contribution to Ethiopian art.”
Exhibitions like this will likely create conversations among art practitioners in east Africa and produce more frequent platforms to showcase works and have dialogues. That will certainly allow for a robust industry.