Saturday, July 20, 2024
Interview“Tendency towards complete demolition” or renovation project?

“Tendency towards complete demolition” or renovation project?

Wondewosen Bekele is the proprietor of Infinity (Elefe-Habet) Gallery and an expert in history and heritage management with a deep understanding of Ethiopian art history and the nation’s artistic evolution.

Presently, he serves as the Secretary-General of the Ethiopian Painters and Sculptors Association, acts as an Art Advisor for the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, and oversees the Metropolitan Gallery of Ethiopia.

Abraham Tekle of The Reporter sat down with Wondewosen for his perspective on the Corridor Project cutting through Addis Ababa. Wondewosen characterizes the project as a demolition of the capital’s historical essence rather than a restoration effort, and accuses the ruling party of intentions to reshape the cityscape, erase symbols of Ethiopian independence, and disrupt social cohesion. EXCERPTS:

The Reporter: There is a notable surge in demolitions and reconstruction projects in Addis Ababa targeting historical sites, residences, infrastructure, and roads as part of government development initiatives. What is your perspective on these developments, and what broader implications do you believe they carry?

Wondewosen Bekele: In general, and in the current context, the act of city development or the creation of a smart city by demolishing existing structures should be viewed primarily as politically motivated actions rather than genuine means of advancing the country’s development. As we strive for modernization and prosperity, it is crucial to simultaneously preserve the spiritual prosperity and enlightenment that served as the foundation for the formation of the state. Architectural structures play a pivotal role in this process, serving as pillars of state formation.

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From a professional standpoint, architecture is often referred to as a ‘frozen book’ that encapsulates knowledge and enlightenment. Just like a book, old architectural buildings possess their own historical magic, offering valuable opportunities for enlightenment. Therefore, the current corridor project and the demolition of these historical architectural works can be seen as driven primarily by political motives, lacking deeper considerations.

In today’s modernized world, there is debate over whether opposition to renovation is justifiable. While some contend that embracing renovation is essential, others caution against prioritizing large-scale projects amidst lingering uncertainties. What are your thoughts on this debate?

To begin with, it is incorrect to categorize the ongoing process as renovation because it does not align with the true meaning of renovation. In essence, renovation involves enhancing and adding value to existing assets, such as people, culture, history, and the nation, by leveraging contemporary resources. For instance, during the 17th century in Paris, the renowned Louvre Palace was constructed, and later it was transformed into a museum. As the museum progressed into the 20th century, there arose a need to renovate it in order to keep up with the advancing modernization of that era.

Consequently, the approach taken was to engage all stakeholders and society at large to contribute their insights and ideas. This was necessary because modernization was at the doorstep, and the museum needed to reflect the contemporary style while undergoing the renovation process. The Louvre Museum, which is now the world’s largest museum, achieved its present state by incorporating the contemporary technology of its time, with the active involvement of all stakeholders.

Thus, renovation entails enhancing what already exists by incorporating modern technology, thereby adding value. However, the Ethiopian situation differs significantly in that we are not renovating but rather demolishing what we have. The restoration of the Menelik Palace serves as a prime example of this. In the principles of history and heritage management, there are four pillars: restoration, renovation, conservation, and preservation. Regrettably, none of these pillars seem to apply in Ethiopia’s current circumstances, as there is a complete disregard for historical rituals in Addis Ababa, with a tendency towards complete demolition.

This situation can be attributed to the country’s overarching political narrative, where one faction seeks to elevate the ruling power while the other seeks to diminish it. Consequently, the fate of the city’s architectural treasures is intertwined with these political dynamics.

What do you make of the argument presented by opponents to the demolition of the city’s cherished architectural landmarks? How valid is their argument?

I strongly disagree with the demolition currently taking place in the city, particularly in the Piassa area. These practices are primarily a result of a lack of sufficient knowledge in the field. As I mentioned earlier, the country’s grand political narratives are based on incorrect understandings of the actual situations. Consequently, false narratives are constructed to suppress the correct political and historical accounts, with the aim of manipulating political ideology and processes. These false narratives are then propagated in society to distort reality.

Furthermore, the current practices in the city are destroying the authentic essence of Ethiopia’s architectural treasures, which used to showcase Ethiopian rituals. To support my argument, it is important to examine the history of Ethiopian architecture. Over the course of three thousand years, Ethiopia has witnessed more than ten architectural styles, ranging from the Axumite Dynasty to the Zagwe Dynasty, and from the architectural treasures of Gonder to the architectural history of the 17th century Mentwabes. Additionally, the architectural history of the 18th and 19th centuries holds significant historical value, followed by the era of Menelik and others, leading up to the current political era under the Prosperity Party.

In light of these historical contexts, Ethiopia’s architecture reflects the political motives, historical significance, religious and cultural influences, as well as the economic considerations of each ruling period. Thus, examining the five pillars of Ethiopia’s architectural history reveals its close connection to political and cultural developments, with biblical narratives playing a predominant role. This influence was particularly pronounced prior to the Adwa victory, while subsequent periods reflect the impact of modern global historical narratives and the emergence of urbanism.

That being said, Piassa specifically represents the birthplace of this urbanism, becoming the nucleus of modern living in Ethiopia, encompassing both modern architectural history and fine arts.

Do you think the aged aesthetic of Piassa’s architecture harmonizes with the modern world?

To put it simply, Piassa and the Adwa victory are deeply interconnected. Piassa was the setting for the Adwa war decree and holds significant historical importance as Emperor Menelik II rallied the people of Ethiopia to march towards the mountains of Adwa and confront the Italian invasion. Furthermore, Piassa has played a vital role in nurturing Ethiopia’s art, cultural, architectural, musical, and literary heritage.

Considering these various perspectives, Piassa stands as an emblematic representation, particularly due to its architectural structures dating back to the late 19th century. However, over the years, a lack of effective architectural policies has led to an excessive influx of unnecessary buildings, thereby diminishing the area’s historical value. Consequently, it would be unwise to leverage these structures for destruction or displace the people who have been residing there for generations, simply because they do not align with modern times.

The current situation can be attributed to the absence of proper architectural policies, making the area a scapegoat for failed initiatives. The state bears responsibility for the resulting misdeeds and the subsequent consequences faced by both the location and its inhabitants. Rectifying this predicament requires striking a balance in our knowledge of the sector, reevaluating our methods of promoting societal interests, and, in the pursuit of building a smart city, ensuring equitable distribution of resources. These principles serve as the fundamental pillars of successful revitalization.

Do you believe that individuals displaced from those areas received adequate compensation for what they have lost?

In today’s world, embracing modernization and development is virtually unanimous among human beings seeking prosperity and progress. The allure of change propels societies forward, driving an ever-growing interest in advancement. However, this collective aspiration for evolution does not discount the importance of ensuring that development serves the greater good. Acknowledging that people are the ultimate beneficiaries and stakeholders of progress, it becomes imperative to prioritize their interests.

Consequently, involving communities in dialogue, from the initial stages of planning to subsequent phases, becomes paramount. Such inclusive practices foster transparency, empower individuals, and uphold social cohesion. Moreover, offering fair compensation for any losses incurred during transformation maintains a sense of justice and belonging among affected populations, thereby solidifying trust within society.

In essence, while change is embraced as a catalyst for improvement, it must be accompanied by a conscientious consideration of its impacts on individuals and communities. Recognizing the interconnectedness between development and the well-being of society underscores the importance of inclusive decision-making processes. By engaging the general society as stakeholders in meaningful dialogues and ensuring equitable compensation, societal trust in the transformative endeavors is fortified.

Ultimately, the journey towards progress becomes not just a pursuit of advancement, but a collective endeavor towards a better, more inclusive future for all.

Some criticize the intentions behind the construction of a museum as large as Adwa on land that held such societal value. Do you see it as a genuine effort to renovate the city or as a ploy for political gain?

As mentioned earlier, the key factor at play here is political action. Let’s consider the significance of architectural history and the concept of comparison. This concept underscores the idea that what we construct today will be viewed and evaluated by future generations. Conversely, any destruction we undertake now may be called into question by those who come after us. In light of this, our decision to construct the Adwa museum while potentially erasing the identity of Adwa is not entirely acceptable.

The area where the museum is located holds profound historical value, as it embodies the antiquity of our country’s history. It was in this very region that countless individuals made great sacrifices and fought against the oppressive forces of fascism. For instance, the St. George church stands as a testament to the neoclassical architectural style. Through this architectural style, the church seeks to commemorate the immense sacrifices and unwavering solidarity of the people who endured the hardships of conflict and emerged victorious in their struggle for freedom. The construction of the church serves as a symbol of this collective effort.

However, it’s important to note that the church is just one of more than 20 architectural works that truly capture the essence of our country’s heroic history. Therefore, I assert with confidence that the Adwa building, erected in the Piassa area to commemorate the Adwa victory, does not genuinely reflect the rich historical background of our nation. It fails to resonate with me and fellow Ethiopians, as it neglects to encompass the full breadth and depth of our shared heritage. So, in my opinion, building it is totally wrong.

Could you elaborate on the reasons for that?

In essence, the architectural design and style of the museum fail to represent both my personal identity and the historical significance of my country. Although it is labeled as a modern museum dedicated to the Adwa victory, its modernity should be closely examined as it lacks the essential qualities that reflect the originality of the era it represents, which forms an integral part of Ethiopia’s modern history.

Accordingly, tearing down this place would be an erroneous decision. The Adwa victory and the rituals associated with it not only transformed the existing global order in terms of geographical and political boundaries, but also played a pivotal role in securing our nation’s independence. Moreover, it served as an inspiration for numerous African and even some Latin American countries in their fight against oppressive Western powers, making it a cornerstone of freedom and liberation.

Therefore, it is imperative to acknowledge the profound implications and historical significance that this place holds. Its architectural design should be reconsidered to ensure that it captures the transcendental essence and authenticity of the Adwa victory, ultimately reflecting the rich heritage and pivotal role it played in shaping our nation and inspiring others. I am saying this because Adwa is real and the building that represents it is hype that reflects western philosophy.

What do you make of the government’s insistence on uniform paint for Addis Ababa’s buildings and official comments linking ownership and paint color?

Criticism from officials claiming the city lacks a legal owner is unfounded, as it fails to acknowledge the government’s own role in this matter. As I mentioned earlier, our country lacks the necessary architectural policies to effectively address such situations. It should come as no surprise that there is a wide range of colors and paints adorning each building, as individuals exercise their freedom to imprint their personal touch on their properties.

Unfortunately, this has resulted in a situation where it is difficult to identify a distinct Ethiopian architectural character in any of the city’s buildings. This is particularly evident in the post-Ethiopian millennium era, where there has been a prevalent influence of Western cultural heritage on architectural trends.

The government bears full accountability for the prevailing confusion, as it lacks the necessary manpower and professionalism to offer precise instructions and guidelines for establishing a unified architectural identity in terms of color selection. Thus, addressing this issue necessitates an inclusive and comprehensive discussion involving the general public and key stakeholders in the field. However, it is important to note that certain groups may be motivated by self-interest or personal gain rather than the broader public interest in making such a call.

What actions have you taken or do you plan to take as a prominent figure in Ethiopian art and as a leader of the Painters and Sculptors Association?

As an Association, we have taken numerous measures to address the severity of the situation at hand. We have diligently sent multiple letters and I, personally, have engaged with the responsible entity to express our concerns. Unfortunately, we have not received a satisfactory response from the government. However, we must not view this as the end of our efforts. It is crucial to consider the psychological preparedness of individuals within the artistic community, including professionals like myself. Many esteemed individuals in our field hesitate to rectify the existing malpractices within the sector. When the government perceives a lack of opposition to challenge their wrongdoings, they freely manipulate their plans to suit their own governance, undermining our actions.

What recommendations do you have to prevent the future recurrence of these mistakes?

Answering your inquiry entails consideration of two pivotal factors. Firstly, there’s the overarching narrative that underpins the identity of our nation, shaping its character and values. Secondly, there’s the crucial aspect of constructing a robust political economy. In navigating these complexities, governments constantly seek individuals aligned with their agendas to execute strategic plans. However, safeguarding society from undue influence and affiliations is paramount. This necessitates proactive efforts to inform and raise awareness among the populace through diverse informational channels, with the media assuming a central role in this endeavor.

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