Walk north from Piazza, cross the Ras Makonnen Bridge, and turn up the hill away from the dust generated by Addis’ construction boom. Here Mifta Zeleke lives and breathes his passion for art, sleeping in a room dominated by racks overflowing with canvases and artworks stacked against the walls.
‘Art is the essence of life,’ Zeleke told us, flipping through the racks of paintings. His face lit up as he recalled Frida Khalo, his favourite artist. With the single bed squeezed in almost as an afterthought, the room is illuminated by a single small window with a view of dusty eucalyptuses and rust-spattered tin roofs of one of the city’s old neighbourhoods that is soon also due for demolition.
Here, in an 82 year old villa once owned by an Ethiopian warlord, Mifta has realised his dream to open Guramayne Art Center, one of the newest additions to Addis Ababa’s growing art scene. For over a thousand years, Ethiopian art has revolved around religious themes, but now modern artists are receiving international attention.
From the first gallery, St George, which opened in 1991, there is now a network of venues from Makush Gallery and Restaurant in Bole (serving UN staff and tourists as their main clientele) to the artist community at Netsa Village and regular exhibitions at the National Museum.
Guramayne, named after the colourful endemic bird, aims to bridge the gap between artists and community with regular discussions and events. Mifta, once a professor of English and English Literature has now turned his career towards his dream, funding the gallery himself and through sponsorship. Youthful-looking and lightly bearded, he described ‘an intensive programme of talks.’ Recent speakers included a curator visiting from Norway and another event where discussions around violence against women followed the exhibition by three Ethiopian photographers, ‘Broken Souls.’
Arriving at noon, heat and dust rising with the impending dry season, this somnolent kebele (the old word derived from the communist regime which divided up towns into neighbourhoods), seemed the wrong place for a gallery until people sheltering under the awning of a shop waved to us as two lost ferenj to point it out.
Stepping through the gates, we entered a small courtyard with a raised bed of herbs, spider plants, and purple senetti in flower. Two giant satellite dishes dominated the yard, having been painted as canvases with television masts and the words ‘BREAKING NEWS.’
The villa, freshly painted evergreen, houses the gallery. Inside a talk was in progress; the exhibiting artist Hailu Kifle speaking to a youthful, densely packed (and mostly male) crowd. We hesitated, being eyed silently from below by a woman guarding her tray of coffee cups, until Mifta pushed his way outside to invite us to wait. We sat on low stools, browsing the glossy exhibition catalogue until the crowds spilled outside to cluster into groups and continue their debates. Mifta took it on himself to personally show us around. Inside, three rooms are painted white with cornflower blue paint reminiscent of a gallery in St Ives and maximising available light from the small windows with ornate iron grilles.
Kifle’s exhibition had been Guramayne’s most successful so far, Mifta explained, but also the most controversial. Kilfe, (originally from Dessie and trained at the Addis Ababa University Alle School of Fine Arts and Design) had painted wooden pallets in yellow and green and then covered them with peeling posters to mimic the corrugated fences that ring the construction sites all around the city; Kilfe describing in the catalogue how ‘the future is being formed through destruction.’
Other works had been created using the administrative stamp as an art tool. The image of Emperor Haile Selassie had been created laying impressions of stamps with the artists fingerprints to signify ‘the role of the individual in the history we are constructing’ as well as how individuals must receive the consequences too. Anyone who has lived in Ethiopia will be familiar with the artist’s message that the administrative stamp has a power that changes the course of people’s lives. The exhibits were all for sale, with prices listed on a laminated sheet. Prices were more in the ferenj category, especially for the bigger works.
We agonised over whether we could afford a huge red and white depiction of The Lion of Judah, thinking how much we had already spent on the country’s new ‘international style’ hotels. At £750, the painting seemed cheap for the quality and intensity it conveyed but at the same time expensive in the context. In the end, worried about transporting it home (Mifta suggested the canvas could be unpicked from the frame), we decided not to buy.
Not everyone agrees with the way the art market in Ethiopia is evolving. According a BBC article, some artists are critical of the commercial focus and high prices at Makush, claiming it stifles creativity. Ironically, there is already a movement towards affordable art. In 2014, The Millenium Hall hosted the first Addis Art Fair which aimed to make modern art more accessible and attainable for everyone including prices nearer to the affordable mark for Ethiopians.
What next for Guramayne? Mifta himself has already sold art in Kenya and Cape Town was hoping to attend an art auction in the UK – dependent on an elusive visa and an interview at the British Embassy.
He is also planning his own reflection on change. ‘You see the view,’ he says, indicating the windows toward the back. ‘It’s beautiful. But soon the construction will start here. Everything will be destroyed.’ He plans to express his regrets about the demolition of the neighbourhood once the construction begins. The exhibits will be removed and the gallery will be kept in darkness.
Guramayne will simply become a window onto the demolition.
Guramayle Art Center, Piazza, Ras Makonnen Bridge, Addis Ababa. Tel: 00251-91-170-2953
This article was first published in the Newsfile of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Read more articles on modern art in Ethiopia here.