Despite Internet penetration in Ethiopia at a measly 15 percent, expensive data access, limited access to social media on top of rolling electricity blackouts, many individuals and businesses have found creative means of promoting themselves or their brands using social media. Tech and social entrepreneurs alike have effectively utilized social media, so why can’t artists use it too?
Mahlet Mairegu, Arts Program Manager at the British Council and manager of the joint British Council, Goethe Institute and iceAddis initiative Creative Futures, says that 20 percent of an artist’s time is spent working and 80 percent of time is spent on making the work and the artist visible. Social media is a huge audience source for artists in Ethiopia. Other African artists have used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to launch their careers. Websites and blogs have allowed artists to explore opportunities around the world from artist residencies and graduate school to gallery shows and workshops. It has democratized artistic conversations and created digital footprints for previously unknown artists. Artists who had never met face to face have created works of art simply by communicating over the Internet.
But there is a very small section of artists effectively utilizing social media in Ethiopia. Mahlet is of the opinion that most artists are reluctant to showcase their works on social media claiming, “it’s not my culture to boast. My work will speak for itself.” But social media, she insists is important to increase visibility. Lack of confidence is another factor she cites.
Artists have been finding cheap and creative ways to introduce their works to the world. Rwandan filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman shot her 74-minute long film Dreamstates on two iPhones in just 42 days. Ethiopian film production company Eerie Inc. used to produce low-cost short critical videos on the local film industry and post it on their YouTube account, inciting relevant conversations that were not available elsewhere. Vintage Addis Ababa is another social media based initiative that collects and achieves old photographs. In a recent Kickstarter campaign to finance a photo-book of their collection received over 105 percent of their goal, promoting the Vintiage Addis Ababa brand beyond Ethiopia. The value of a global audience cannot be overlooked.
“We’ve got no presence right now. Social media presence isn’t enough,” says Mahlet, referring to the lack of artist websites. Compared to social media accounts like Instagram and Facebook, Websites do offer more credibility to the artist. Learning how to use free blog sites like WordPress, Weebly or Wix brings the artist one step closer to local or international recognition. She also urges filmmakers, animators and performance artists to utilize YouTube to introduce their works to the world.
Girma Berta is an exceptional example of artists using social media to launch a meteoric career. Established artists like Dawit Abebe have used social media to connect to an international audience and gain representation from galleries abroad. Girma on the other hand used Instagram to begin his career as an internationally recognized photographer. His @gboxcreative account has over 33 thousand followers. After entering his photos to a Getty Images Instagram competition and winning first place in 2016, then getting representation from the London branch of Addis Fine Art gallery, Girma’s career has skyrocketed. His photographs, mostly taken on the street and digitally altered to isolate a single figure and add texture to the background, sell for thousands of dollars abroad.
While access to Internet is a huge factor in the low social media engagement of artists, there is also the laziness that social media creates. Scrolling through Facebook absentmindedly does not encourage users to apply for a residency program or any other opportunity that could potentially further their career, let alone take the time to think and express an articulate opinion on what Ethiopian contemporary art can mean.
Kalkidan Fessehaye, a young blogger who has been using her WordPress website ‘Circling Qalat’ says she people don’t read long blog posts because of their short attention span. Kalkidan recently launched a haiku and short story writing competition and was able to receive 40 qualified submissions, an impressive task considering the task at hand. “Haikus are not easy,” she says. “People usually scroll by. They rarely try to do things that require time or attention.”
Kaldikan prefers social media because it’s free and there is no censorship. She expects her blog will take up to four years to pick up but she’s committed to the process. Her experience is that most choose to send private messages instead of commenting on her Facebook page or her blog but she has found the comments to be genuine and occasionally expressing disagreement.
A significant element to the social media experience is the comment section. The Internet allows free and continuous discussion on artwork that is highly inclusive and allows participants to be as critical as possible. Recent Pulitzer prize winning art critic Jerry Saltz’s Instagram page is one example of how one simple post can create a productive dialogue among hundreds. Social media is quickly changing art criticism and growing a new set of art lovers.
Contemporary Art Collective, a group of artists based Addis recently created a social-media based initiative to discuss the concept of contemporary art in an Ethiopian context. Dawit Seto, one of the members of the collective says they decided to use the online medium instead of their usual contemporary night events in order to reach more people and have a conversation that can continue beyond one evening.
The discussion did not receive many comments but it is not the only web-based initiative by the collective. They have previously had open calls to artists in Addis offering them a platform to showcase any output created in their practice. That also did not receive much attention, says Dawit. He speculates that cultural reservations might restrict many from voicing their opinions. “The openness of the platform might scare people from express their opinions.” Most chose to send direct messages instead of commenting on their Facebook posts. Another peculiarity he found was that most commenters posted generic comments like ‘wow’ or ‘good job’, rarely offering anything constructive. They have found social media useful since it allows documentation and archival or works produced, albeit their chosen platform for this venture is Tumblr, a rarely used tool in Ethiopia.
Mahlet is insistent on the value social media has in terms of cross-pollinating audiences. She cites a recent instagram selfie by painter Seifu Abebe. In the picture Seifu is posing with electronic musician Rophnan. This image, she says, is creating a new audience for both artists, allowing them to exchange networks without paying for anything except for maybe access to Internet.
Kalkidan has had a similar experience. She was most impressed that she was able to build a community of writers she would not have met otherwise. “It actually helped me,” she muses. “People were encouraged to start their own blogs after seeing mine.”
Zewdalem Tadesse is a Facebook blogger whose posts are humorous commentary on social and political affairs of Ethiopia. He averages one post a day and he’s been actively using Facebook in this manner for 4 years. “I’m not a writer. I Just want to share my thoughts.” He says. But he’s currently working on a book, in the vein of authors who started their writing careers on social media like Hiwot Emishaw and Alex Abraham.
Writers are the primary group that has effectively used social media to promote their art. Even though writing spaces like wordpress blogs or medium.com exists most use Facebook. Visual artists like photographers and graphic designers use Instagram. The currently, and paradoxically, popular Telegram (an oddity since it’s the primarily used messaging app in a total of 3 countries worldwide including Iran and Uzbekistan) is another tool that artists and businesses alike have recognized. Photography groups like Planet Ethiopia get over 600 views per photo.
One post by Zewdalem averages 1000 views and over 60,000 individuals from all around the world follow his profile. He says the most useful opportunity provided by social media is the international reach. He has been able to make friends and connections worldwide including individuals who have sent him books he wasn’t able to find in Addis.
One of the drawbacks of social media is plagiarism and copyright infringement. Zewdalem’s posts have been copied on magazines and read on the radio without citing the original author. Zewdalem takes these violations in stride but the implications are large. His posts are shared by hundreds of people online and his following is growing daily.
Yohannes ‘Jay’ Balcha is another social media phenomenon. Through effective facebook, instagram and telegram marketing he’s able to advance his career as an illustrator. Over a thousand people in under a week downloaded his recent Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed telegram stickers especially made for the graduation season. Not only has he effectively marketed himself and his art, he has studied each medium and created content especially for those social media tools, essentially creating a market demand when there was none.
Another shortcoming to utilizing social media for artistic output is the low monetary reward. That does not mean there is none. Artists, especially musicians have been able to monetize their music videos on YouTube. Artists like Abi Lakew, Betty G and Jano Band use their own YouTube channels to monitor their music videos, earning between $0.25 and $4 for 1000 views. Other local artists have not been as smart. Hosting channels like DireTube and Hope Entertainment have become the primary profiteers of YouTube views, only cutting a small share of the profits with the artists. Other pirating channels have noticed artists’ lag in this market and rushed to profit by posting videos they can’t access legally.
The Internet age has opened doors for many in African countries that would otherwise have had a much harder time gaining recognition. The Internet plays an increasingly large role in ensuring the sustainability of art and artists. A simple Google search of ‘art in Africa’ results in American or European news and art sites posting about African artists. Most platforms available for artists are run by western entities but social media is a great equalizer in this regard. Mahlet asks, “When are we going to talk about ourselves? We should own our own stories.”