With Girma Beyene’s song playing in the background, a crowd gathers to look at pictures of Addis’s old architectural gems and pictures. Fearless of the threateningly grey clouds, many people crowd around a table constructing small model buildings out of wooden cubes. Children are gathered around a large mural depicting the former leader Mengistu Hailemariam leading a mob, painting it on canvases and pieces of cardboard. The place is Ethio Cuba Friendship Park and the event is Shir Shir, an interactive architectural experience.
Biniam Hailu, practicing architect and instructor at Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development (EiABC), and Nahom Tsegaye, creative director at Astar Advertising Agency, have prepared for four months to make this event a reality. They wanted to create an immersive artistic event encouraging public engagement focused on architecture combined with music and the visual arts. Quwanqwa Band performed signature songs and DJ Mitmita played classic tunes from the Golden Era of Ethiopian music as attendants enjoyed the festivities.
A large construction in the middle of the park grounds is made of repurposed cardboard tubes covered in plastic in case of rain. These tubes are typically found when purchasing large reams of paper and most local paper recycling plants cannot recycle them. Under this, volunteers from EiABC Social Studio Program give small layouts for participants gluing wood blocks together to build house models.
Located in front of the National Post Office around Balck Lion Hospital, the park has been open to the public for quite a while but many are unaware of its operations. The beauty of the place was emphasized by the addition of photo installations exploring buildings over 200 years old, found around the city. Betelhem Abebe, 23, a recent graduate from Addis Ababa University says, “I never knew these old buildings even existed. They are very beautiful. I would like to see them in person.”
The diversity of those gathered was surprising. Architects and artists already knowledgeable that the event was taking place hobnobbed with children and parents from all walks of life and paint portraits of each other and the monuments in the park. Attracted by the music, the homeless and passersby linger and take part in the activities. Many were glad that there was finally a refreshing outdoor event inclusive to all. The purpose, says organizer Biniam, was to make art a community activity. By extricating art and architecture from the academic and gallery settings to which it is normally restricted, it can be accessible to everyone interested.
Shir Shir’s relaxed atmosphere invited many to stay and enjoy the park together. Raffles gave away prizes like a comprehensive booklet listing statues and sculptures found around Addis Ababa. Adults who hadn’t drawn a picture since childhood proudly displayed their work to their peers. The Bake Shop provided delicious baked goods and free non-alcohol drinks were available. Shir Shir was a comfortable entry to those who are unfamiliar with art activities and a stimulating reminder of the value of community.
Biniam and Nahom, both trainees of the British Council’s Creative Futures Event Management Program, combined their passions for public interaction, architecture and art in this event. Mulugeta Gedamu, a 33-year-old sales agent, visits Ethio-Cuba Friendship Park on Sundays and was glad to see something new. “I like coming here because it’s refreshing. It prepares me for the week to come. Today has been new though. I loved it. I’ve had fun participating in all the activities,” he said he took pictures of the event.