Girum ‘Geremew’ Geterew, 29, is standing by the roadside leading from Boleto Meskel Square. He is guarding a series of acrylic paintings he has made and sales on the street. He has occupied the site for the past few months, having moved from the other side of Bole across the street from Medhanialem church following road construction work in the area. He had worked at the previous site for 3 years.
Geremew’s works add a pop of color to a vibrant, but ultimately art deprived city like Addis. People unlikely to enter art galleries stop by to see these paintings. They converse with Geremew, asking questions about the subject matter or offering their own interpretations. Some even purchase the pieces.
Othersare still, happy to find an artist that isn’t dauntingly intellectualizing to the extent of obscuring the meaning of the art piece, eager to discuss with Geremew. Few take his number to commission works. Most people buy his paintings to hang in their homes or places of business. Geremew is of the opinion that people have resold his paintings at a profit.
The commercial potential of visual arts in this city is yet to be explored, of course. Art works can be sold for hundreds of thousands of birr but the market is hardly formal. The resale value is where commercial art has soared. While modernist masters like Geremew’s works are based solely in Addis, SkunderBoghossian, AfeworkTekle and WosseneKorosof are high auction items abroad.
Paintings are now seen more and more often in public spaces like coffee houses and hotels, not merely as decorations as part of the interior design but to also showcase an up and coming artist’s works as a makeshift gallery space. Art has found a way through the cracks, contorting to fit into whatever context allows for its continued existence.
These hotel paintings are rarely of good quality but for most it is the effort that counts. The ubiquitous ‘Ethiopian’ motifs of long necked woman floating in some ethereal space, her half-lidded eyes staring nonchalantly at the audience or simply the coffee/jebena visual are difficult to escape. It is almost as if thinking about art that comes from Ethiopian artists must contain these visual ideals of an Ethiopian identity with which many disagree and dismiss asantiquated and highly biased. This sort of work is of course largely targeted at the foreign audience that buys into such portrayals. But, it has been detrimental to our contemporary art, many would argue.
Highly skilled artists regurgitate the same old ideas artists before them had explored without pushing the idea any further or challenging the status quo. As identity and culture are ever-shifting, so should our expressions of these abstracts be.
The knickknacks sold around the post office area in Piassa are prime example of what could alternatively be known as low cost art. Sold for profit and of little actual value–aesthetic or monetary–they threaten to define the city’s art scene. Oversaturation, however, is not necessarily indicative of truth.
Geremew’s paintings sell for at least 3500 birr and commissions can be three times higher depending on the technical difficulties involved. He has not received much formal education to develop his craft, having trained as an auto mechanic but deciding to make the shift to painter and following his passion. He enrolled in Alem Gallery’s art school then went on to pursue art as a livelihood.
The vast majority of youth interested in becoming visual artists and unable to enter into one of the two formal art schools in country (Ale School of Fine Art and Mekelle University’s new art institution) enter vocational or training schools that give art lessons. Students that graduate from TeferiMekonnen School of Art, or even Abyssinia or Enlightenment Art Schools take the entrance examination for Ale again. The system may have helped weed out students but Ale only graduates a maximum of 30 students a year.
It isn’t as if there’s a channel art school graduates can enter that can transport them to the formal employment sector of the country. Graduate school, usually abroad, is an option for a handful. The quickly flourishing advertising sector has been able absorb quite a number of artists. Artists themselves have jumped on the bandwagon opening their own advertising firms after seeing the market potential.
The role of galleries of course cannot be dismissed. Although few in number, galleries, art patrons and lovers continue to support artists in their practice and throughout their lives. The community of artists and appreciators is quite strong.
This begs the question – is there a market that can support 30 new artists every year?
Graduates of the school are aware of the difficulties of being an artist. Having a livable income through art making when fresh out of school can more often than not depend on the commercial value of the art. This can induce young artists to continue the cycle of creating commercially viable ‘Ethiopian’/ tourist-bait art.
Some refuse to participate at all and disappear only to resurface every few years with new works; funding their practice through teaching, commission work or side hustles.
The road can be embittered and uphill. Strength of character and a stubborn force of will can be the difference between submitting to the pressures or making something of significance.
Young artists, whether self-taught like Geremew, or coming out of art school, are forging their own way, despite everything. How can the market make room for them?