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The creative world of digital Art
The Yeha digital art exhibition organizing team and participating artists

The creative world of digital Art

Since the digital age marched into the world, it was only a matter of time before artists grasped its progressive nature as a means to an end. Not new to the artistic world but new to the city of Addis; digital artwork is creating its own space in the in an ever-changing landscape as a credible alternative to traditional means of art, writes Senait Feseha.

Is digital art dishonest? Is it threatening “real” art? Could it be the next big thing in the modern art realm? These were the questions inadvertently raised within the art community at the Ye-ha Digital Art Exhibition.

The Ye-ha Digital Art Exhibition was not just another art exhibition in town. It created waves among many young art enthusiasts either in ‘critique of’ or ‘in admiration of’ the exhibit.

Situated at the Boston Partners Building, Addis Ababa – this first of its kind exhibition – featured works of eight young digital artists. They showcased various arts that employed digital technology and virtual tools to replace physical instruments and substrates.

There is nothing quite like the excitement and eagerness generated by an opening night; especially if the event lasts for just a few hours. Around 6 pm, art lovers had already started to arrive and fill the buildings surrounding. Upon ascending the stairs, visitors were welcomed with a boom of noise and perfumes mixed with humid air. The entrance was bustling with a crowd keen to witness this fairly new and emerging form of art.

The gathering mostly contained young artists, architects, designers and those within the creative industry. Once settled inside, guests became invested in the various forms of artworks on display.

One of the works put on display was a video projection tucked away at one of the farthest corners. The screen was displaying a sneak preview of an upcoming animated adult sitcom titled ‘Mender’. Taking place in a ghetto like environment, the work encourages the viewer to complete the picture by imagining the missing details.

On the opposite side of the corner was an experimental project. An Augmented Reality lens or when viewing through a phone camera, the digital prints at the display create interactions between the audience and the art. One portrayed an Ethiopian woman drinking coffee from a cup; the image appears to come to life when the steam from the hot coffee starts to rise. The animation and the Augmented Reality were the works of Bethlehem Molla, founder of DeDe Studio.  Bethlehem in collaboration with Abel Adane – a programmer – created the Augmented Realities. “Most of my work reflects the Ethiopian culture and women; it is generally themed ‘Fantasy’ as it has a way of exploring in and out of the fantasy world,” Bethlehem explained.

Elsewhere in the show, one can travel in time through the works of Gashaye Mahtemu, Tekea Haile and Solomon Samson. With theme of “Colorizing History”, these graphic artists restore vintage black and white photographs. The photos are digitally manipulated to create vibrant images with much life and color.  Michael Tesfaye, a graphic designer familiar with their work said, “In addition to appearance, their work adds valuable information to a history that is not recorded originally. It seems like crossing over into a world of fiction and myth. Image manipulation coupled with careful analysis of historical imagery has made it possible to enhance and add extra layers of history into century old photographs.”

Meanwhile, people were noticeably fascinated, often tilting their heads, observing closely, as they talked amongst each other. Wine, beer and bottled water were in plenty of supply including packages of strawberries, should anyone yearn for refreshments. The atmosphere finally conducive, artists started to describe their work.

Another graphic artist by the name of Ermias Assefa created a piece that depicts a story of value titled “Adera” which was a favorite amongst many. “Adera is a piece I hold dear. It is in general, a question to us all, to check where we stand. It shows a beast, which at first looks hellish, but when left responsible with a tiny being not off its own, it keeps it safe even though it is not in its nature to do so,” Ermias explained.

Other interesting artworks were also displayed by Woinshet Goshu, Yohanes (Jay) Balcha and Omar Yassin. Woinshet drew her inspirations from the simple but beautiful things in life. While Omar and Jay’s work differed greatly from each other, they both had patriotic inspirations.

There were mixed feelings regarding the exhibition. “This exhibition catered to the different expectations of the new generation, digital experiences are transforming how audiences engage with art and are driving new forms of participation,” Yonatan Zewdu, a contemporary sculpture artist, commented.

On the other hand, many art lovers who preferred physical mediums such as canvas, paint, pencil and brushes where hesitant to accept this new style or acknowledge it as a “real” art.  For them, comparing artworks made by traditional methods with digital creations gives an unfair advantage to the later.

Semawit Tadesse, a self-trained acrylic paint artist argues that “One can only be considered a digital artist if he/she has the money to be technologically equipped. I don’t consider that art. Money is not the only thing in question. The most common argument we have with digital artists is that traditional artists always create authentic artworks based on our technical know-how of drawing, composing and mixing colors while digital artists just get pricy tools that lets them create artworks without any technical knowledge. After all, a real artist needs to master things such as sketching, color mixing and different kinds of difficult techniques.”

One of the event organizers, Nasredin Mohamed said that “we understand that the status quo does not recognize it as art. Hence, the main goal of the event was to challenge that way of thinking, be a voice for the underdogs (the digital artists). We, (the organizers) love digital art. First, digital art is so versatile, not limited to rigid canvases and paint brushes; it gives you unlimited set of tools. Second, people have a misconception that a computer does everything for you, which is wrong. A computer is a tool, it’s a medium.”

Nasredin also argued that digital art is not expensive as presumed. “Digital art can be created in all forms and one can start using smartphones. In the long run, buying different paints and canvases could be just as costly, if not more. You don’t have to waste materials or samples; you can just store it digitally. This also makes digital art environmentally friendly,” he said.

The exhibition caused divisions within the audience. Even after it was over, most of the participating graphic artists agreed that accepting new technologies will invite wider ranges of modern-day audiences and strengthen their position in the new digital age. If not now, surely the near future will see the growth of digitalization.

“Clearly digital art is not currently recognized as real art by many, but as technology continues to swiftly travel into modern society, we will no doubt continue to see it unfold into a dynamic force, solidifying itself as a reliable substitute to traditional means of art making,” Yonatan concluded.