Skip to main content
Redefining art at Zoma
Interior of musuem

Redefining art at Zoma

Concealed by a small, unassuming gate and positioned amidst colorful gardens bursting with vegetables and herbs lies a small kitchen dedicated to change the way children interact with food.

It is not one of the newest restaurants trending in the capital or a farmstead tended to by multitudes of expert farmers.

No, this is an edible garden, to be cared for by students, teachers and parents in a kindergarten situated in Mekanissa. The school is a new addition to Zoma Museum, a highly famed art center amongst the local and international creative circle.

Come September, when the sky is a brilliant shade of blue, the color of flowers and leaves reach their peak, and the temperatures warm up, children are going to be busy digging dirt, planting, weeding, mulching, and watering living plants. The sky is the ceiling, but they are learning.

This new, hands-on approach will be taken by teachers and students after the opening of the sensory garden at the coming school season. The school is said to give students a chance to embark on a practical outdoor based curriculum, in an interactive and edible environment.

The garden features a variety of vegetables, fruits, and herbs with multitudes of colorful flowers and trees to spark the students’ imaginations. It makes food, a material reality that everyone interacts with daily an object of practical study.     

It gives children the opportunity to grow, touch, smell and eat the fruits of their labor. In addition to making abstract conceptual matters appear concrete, the curriculum is believed to instill a sense of ownership, teach students the value of teamwork, responsibility, and respect for nature. It will also motivate students to have an increased physical activity, to eat healthier and commune with nature and the ecology that surrounds them. 

Zoma Museum is an eco-sensitive, educational art village, it is co-founded by Meskerem Assegued, a curator, anthropologist, environmentalist and writer and Elias Sime, a multi-disciplinary artist widely known for relief sculpture, performance art and architecture.

The school, founders say, are really outdoor classrooms where children learn valuable lessons; not just about nutrition, but also about math and the natural world.

“For instance, it is easier for a child to learn the concept of addition or division through the potato he/she holds in his hands, it’s easier to teach measurements through the depth of its roots…to identify and compare shapes, to classify objects, to count and explore characteristics.” Elias said.

“This real-world teaching method will help the children develop a level of interest and love for education.”

“These gardens can help expose children to nutritious fruits and vegetables, teaching them where food comes from, and what it takes to produce food, and serve as an educational tool.”

The grounds, which spans over several  thousand square meter was an indescribably filthy dump site until they rescued it and turned it into an art haven several years ago.

Now, the village is full of life; it provides relief to the tired nerves and smoke-filled lungs of the city dweller. It has a number of lush grassy plots, flower beds, indigenous trees, water wells, a barn that houses a small family of cows and over 40 temporary wooden bridges that pass over the water that cascades down through the steep landscape and descends to the Akaki River.

The circular cobblestone pathways are built in respect to the naturally existing sloppy landscape and are wheelchair accessible. These paths trail through the plantation, forcing visitors to view and experience the different aromatic herbs whose scent lingers around the compound.

The word ‘art’ usually brings up the mental image of paintings and sculptures in most people’s minds. But at Zoma, the founders are helping redefine those stereotypes.

They use a unique and different media: mud.  The compound features a cluster of earthen buildings.  But these built structures are art, sculpture and architecture in themselves.

A feature that stands out is the building’s façade. Whether it’s about identity and fingerprints or the dying Geez numerical system, each building unit tells a story. But one of the most striking concepts lies on several units that depict the mysterious life cycle of the butterfly. The artist, Elias used the concept of metamorphosis to tell a beautiful story of transformation and emergence.

The walls illustrate the four stages: the eggs are attached to a leaf, the egg is hatched into a caterpillar and the caterpillar makes a cocoon and then seals itself in the cocoon for several days before it emerges and unfolds its wings to fly.

The works are so intricate and detailed that they create a completely immersive experience for its viewers. One can be mesmerized looking at the intertwined moulds of mud, or become consumed by the sensual feeling the textures generate.

Elias speaks so fondly of the medium mud “to work with it, you have to be able to love it, it has to take the feeling of love from you, similar to the human love, to the human touch,” he said, feeling the imaginary mud in between his fingers, “Mud is like that, it is so soft, so sensual, it’s something that will make you fall in love.”

Zoma Museum was inspired by the road trip Meskerem took around Ethiopia. “It’s inspired by the earthwork and stone traditions that I saw throughout the country. They are striking; the construction methods are time tested. I saw the beauty and I thought to myself ‘There must be something they are doing right.’”

The entire village is not only an expression of art, but also a service to the public, designed to reinforce the idea of vernacular architecture. Vernacular in the architecture sense means functional, community based constructions that take advantage of locally available materials, it responds to the climate, culture and surrounding landscape. It reflects the skills and traditions of its local culture.

As concrete and steel towers flourish and each building looks like the next, Meskerem and Elias are fighting to keep the construction materials, methods and styles that are in danger of dying out.

“… The earth is kind and loving, after all the misery and tragedy we put her through, she still chooses to nurture us. She is not resentful, always fruitful.  So I believe it’s our place to give back, to take care of earth.” Meskerem said.

True to its style, Zoma Museum is heavily influenced by the local knowledge, uses low tech structures and is environmentally sustainable. It is a striking example of contemporary vernacular design, a forward thinking, artistically and architecturally significant building.

In the meticulously designed and crafted architectural creation, the center owns a museum which serves as an exhibition space for artists from around the world, a library, a café, a gift shop, and a school working on courses for vernacular architecture.

The focus of Zoma’s work is the promotion of multidisciplinary contemporary art, international exchange between artists and the conception and implementation of sustainable, innovative and environmentally conscious art projects. Its residency programs are designed around different themes (architectural, landscape, design, art, documentary film making, and education).

Zoma Museum has brought globally acclaimed artists together to exchange ideas with their Ethiopian counterparts and has held prominent international events. The residency program has inspired many international artists. The renowned artist Ernesto Novelo, after finishing a resident program back in 2007, was inspired by the concept that he replicated part of it in his home country, Mexico. 

Now, there are Zoma Museums in three different venues: Addis Ababa, Harla, a small village located in between the cities of Dire Dawa and Harar, and in Mexico (Yucatan).