Be it prehistoric rock art or church painting, Ethiopia has great ethnic and linguistic diversity, and styles in secular traditional crafts vary greatly in different parts of the country.
Alebel Desta has worked as an architect for more than three decades, and he has always had a deep appreciation for traditional Ethiopian arts and crafts. His mother, an artist in her own right, showed him the range of possibilities open to him when it came to making handmade creations. He remembers how often his mother knitted and how she would incorporate her own unique style into traditional items like sweaters and blankets.
His upbringing in a creative environment ignited a lifelong passion for the arts that ultimately led him to study architecture. Through his work as an architect, he also wanted to fulfill a deep-seated urge to give Ethiopian arts and crafts the spotlight they deserve.
So, Alebel collaborated with other artists to launch ZigZag, an establishment that showcases modern interpretations of traditional Ethiopian and African motifs. The crafts on display at the recently established gallery represent over 20 years of effort by numerous people.
Many of the paintings in the collection combine modern painting techniques with traditional Ethiopian and African artworks, using bold colors and geometric shapes, patterns, and lines. Crosses, tattoos, and tilet from Ethiopia have inspired several of the works on display around the gallery.
Most of the patterns and designs on display are based on traditional local patterns and artwork created by our mothers, according to Alebel. “We drew inspiration for these hues, patterns, and motifs from a variety of African and Ethiopian works of art.”
Also included in the exhibition is a studio/workspace designed to be as open, free, and creative as possible, where architects and inspired youth can experiment by touching, feeling, and putting their ideas into reality.
The majority of the room’s furnishings were also made by the crew themselves, with inspiration taken from traditional Ethiopian crafts.
Visitors are encouraged to use their imaginations and take inspiration from the space’s overall aesthetic, which includes furniture like a mat fashioned in the style of a “sefed” (a traditional basket used in many Ethiopian households) and paintings and sculptures reminiscent of Ethiopian traditional art.
The centerpiece of the facility is a bamboo dome built in-house and installed smack in the middle of the room. The idea was to give the space the sensation of a house within a house while also giving visitors a place to sit and take in the displays.
Alebel thinks Ethiopia’s arts and crafts industry is a valuable, untapped resource.
“In my opinion, local crafts in our area are underappreciated and are not given the exposure they should have. Take pottery as an example; it’s a wonderful art form that we haven’t explored nearly enough, and it has a lot of potential uses that are relevant to today’s youngsters.”
The traditional tilet, which he describes as “a variety of patterns and colors that can be mixed into different and sophisticated designs,” is another subject he covers. These patterns can be used for a wide variety of purposes, including wallpaper, carpeting, and more.
By expanding these conventional motifs and artforms into art pieces and buildings, Alebel has created a venue in which they can be exhibited in novel and unexpected ways. The gallery is also a zero-waste zone, where all materials used in the creation of artwork are recycled. Rather, it’s repurposed for some other form of creative decoration.
Fabric, bamboo, clay, wood, metal, plastic, and countless other materials are just some of the many that Alebel and his colleagues use.
Located next to Bisrate Gabriel, ZigZag intends to become a gathering place for local youth to learn about and experiment with traditional arts and crafts.
It aims to offer a modern take on Ethiopian and African customs and colors in creative forms for anybody to see, enjoy, and own, while also giving trainings, classes, visual aids, or any other type of experience-sharing possibilities for today’s youth.