Home > Arts, Portrait > Fourth Installment of Art of Ethiopia

Fourth Installment of Art of Ethiopia

Rain and wet weather din’t stop art lovers in Addis from heading to the city’s luxury hotel, the Sheraton Addis’s Lalibela Grand Ballroom for the fourth installment of Art of Ethiopia. It is the city’s biggest such show and it has become an important platform for the art fraternity to do business. The exhibition, installed by a curator from Dubai, has contained 400 works, arranged according to topics and color resemblance. But a uniting preoccupation seems to be matters of identity, history, place and social criticism. This year some big names such as Afewerk Tekle, Alle Felege Selam, Mezgebu Tesemma, Worku Mamo, Bekele Mekonnen were conspicuously absent. A great number of the artists were under 35, and there were more women than before, (ten to what was seven last year). Though each of the artists presented ten works, their works were randomly placed, making it at times harder for the spectator to follow the artist’s train of thought.
“Tella Bet”, by the veteran artist Tadesse Mesfin, made in oil on canvass, is one of the works that greets you when you enter the show: a young woman with long skirt standing, carrying a bucket.Her room was a simmer of boiling vessels and crackling coal pots. Hanging conspicuously in the background was a Bible, indicating the protagonists’ religious fervor. It struck me as one of prettiest thing I’d ever seen. Tella Bet, a tavern where home-brewed and fermented alcohol is sold, is a source of income for thousands of poor Ethiopians. One of the most prominent instructors at the Ale School of Fine Arts and Design of Addis Ababa University, Tadesse is a great imaginative artist, always trying to discover the appropriate form for what he wanted to say. Some of his works are bustling social panoramas, such that portray the down trodden masses, the shabby streets, the dilapidated rental houses, and the wandering elderly.

Another striking work was by the 43-year-old Daniel Taye. Daniel, who rarely fails to entrain and amaze, tackles a wide of range of subjects, from implied social commentary to portraits of famous people. Pictured below is “A portrait of Asfaw Damete”, a prominent man of letters and critic, made with oil on canvass, in painstakingly authentic manner. With a book shelve behind him, and art work hanging in the wall, Asfaw was holding a book, wearing a formal dress, a suit with neck tie. It seems to be a work endowed with nobility, nuance, and grace.

Daniel’s works that obviously have drawn attention from the crowd are portraits of nude women with an air of an outrageous improvisation, which I guess were done using female models. Daniel, who suffered frequent boot of hysteria, (like one night two years ago when he got into Sheraton’s Piano Bar and asked the pianist to leave the chair for him, so that he could play, creating a bit of scene and eliciting anger from the hotel staff) . But the latest exhibit show Daniel has lately been productive and contrary to some of his fans fear, he is not at all wasting himself. In fact, he has taken craftsmanship to new heights through his precise and excruciatingly time consuming work.
Over all, women made a strong showing in Art of Ethiopia. Works by Bisrat Shibabaw and Kerima Ahmed stand out, as do paintings by Kohar Kevorkian. Most of the female artists opted for a more introspective, meditative approach in a more minimalist and abstracted form. Though painted in Bisrat’s customary style, with combination of lines and colors, there is a delicacy of touch in Bisrat’s work which reflects the more gentle subject matter.
Bisrat once said that the world is a combination of two things: line and colors. It is only art that has the power of snatching away our soul from the intricate, dreadful, dim world, changing all these into a world full of brightness and beauty, she explained. Lines are for her man’s spiritual and objective communication language. Relating back to the ‘musicality’ of her work, Bisrat stresses that she attempts to visually echo the musical melody into one’s ears, making it “a ladder that connects the earth to the paradise.”

The 34-year-old Kerima shines in graceful, music-inspired works, made of acrylic. Her work is an ongoing experiment in naïve painting and the ornamental approach of a Gustav Klint.In “Melody Followers”, she distilled rhythms of music into her painting. Shape is an important element in Kerima’s work. She gives a feeling of movement and creates mood by irregular forms. The distorted shapes add to the melodrama.


Hana Yilma was a real discovery at this year’s Art of Ethiopia. Her painting, topless women at sauna bath, was a delight and has as much a sensuous rhythm. “The Cold side” is the name of the painting she made in oil on canvass, reflecting scene of the urban Ethiopian experience. It all springs from Hana’s interests in a newly booming fad in the city- the sauna parlors. Her works attempts to address such themes as gender, sexuality, and identity.


According to the Sheraton’s catalogue, Hana was born in Arsi Negele in 1986, studied painting first at the Abyssinia School of Art, and then at the Addis Ababa University School of Fine Arts from where she graduated in 2010.She has exhibited at the Addis Ababa Exhibition Center in 2008, and then at the Casa da Xuventude de Ourense in Spain last year. Though a promising talent, her works still need a little bit of refinement, like her use of colors which I found less crafty.


The Ethio-Armenian Kohar Kevorkian’s “The Spear” (2011) made from block sand, leather, copper, brass, wood, achieve ravishing effects of scale. For her, the installation works serves to capture moments of reality, using a fusion of Western and Eastern cultures. Her signature piece of art is the classic African comb or ‘Mido’, which she has displayed in the is exhibition too.
The works of Wosene Worke Kosrof are widely known, for making Amharic alphabet the core of his symbols. The intensity of his work seems free from any desire to conform to academic rules. He creates a world of his own, exploring aesthetic dimensions of Amharic language.

My Arat Kilo

“I divest the language characters of literal meaning and transform them into a visual language” he says. “This new language I create is linked with Ethiopian literary tradition of ‘wax and gold’ in which Ethiopian poets use a word in their poems that has a familiar meaning, the ‘wax’. But the poets also intend a second, hidden meaning to the world, an unusual or unaccustomed association, which is the ‘gold’. The wax in my paintings is the language symbol itself. When I manipulate the symbol by turning it upside down, dismantling or elongating it, I create the ‘gold’, transforming it into a symbol that derives its meaning strictly from its form, color and environment, “he explained. Hence, Wosene’s symbol itself becomes both wax and gold, and a visual poetry.
The 33-year-old Yakob Bekele explores his recurrent theme-shapeless human figure. One pictured here is an emblematic image of human figure which the artist describes as unfinished and in the process of transformation. He says that it is an expression of his ongoing search for the completion of his state of being. As an artist, he categorizes himself as an embryo, out of which he and his art are evolving. He is still searching for the prolongation of his artistic production, without either a fixed timetable or an itinerary. For him, the picture is cognitive study, which records every train of thought and with an possibilities of expression are infinite.


Dawit Abebe’s works have a distinctive flavor and he has displayed more sophisticated series before. His image has still some element of surprise, in works which look like cartooned profiles, on a starkly white ground. I bumped into him at the show and he made some interesting explanations about his works. He told me that his works are series with not yet finished phase. He said he called called them “Human experience” and most of them are the act of looking at human activity from different angle, like for example from top view. “It is bad that they are not placed close to each other. Since they are series and with messages interconnected, had they been hang next to each other, they would have been clearer,” he said. He said he is still planning to have a solo exhibition in the near future and he hopes to express himself more fully.
Art of Ethiopia, in the general, could be a witness to the fact that contemporary art is very much alive in Ethiopia and moving in all directions. Yet, as many of the artists who have participated admitted, with the exception of few, the art tends to be banal, heavily decorated, excessively colorful, and appropriate for a glamorous magazine cover. Statement-making works are scarce. A few quality works are quickly absorbed into the briskly commercial atmosphere. Fortunately, serious art lovers could still find moments of transcendence while hopping from one section to another.
(all photos courtesy of Sheraton Addis)

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  1. Andu
    September 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    The ‘Curator from Dubai’ and Luleged Reta made a mess of the expo. It is a shame that Lulseged was speaking on behalf Ethiopian artists. He is no artist at all, that his paintings of blown-up, cheap ads and reproductions are copies of the banal. Let he keep his mediocrity for himself but let he not to pretend he is our representative.

  2. June 26, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    I found your criticism of Hana Yilma’ work titled “The Cold side” very shallow. Apart from her work being amongst the best at the show, her theme and colour schemes are mastery. Rather than heed to your uneducated criticism, i am of the learned opinion that she keeps doing more of the same.

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