The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Monday 30th June 2003

‘What's Up’ Art

Given by - Leah Niederstadt

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

Leah Niederstadt, a social anthropologist from Michigan, is studying for a PhD at Wolfson College, Oxford. Her subject might surprise you (well, it did me!): circuses in Ethiopia. It's just never occurred to me that there ever were 'circuses' in Ethiopia. How wrong can one be?

For a country which too often only hits the headlines in tales of disaster and distress, it comes as a pleasant surprise that all is not all the time doom and gloom.

Far from it, in fact. And we owe it to Leah for yet another surprising revelation: Addis Ababa boasts a flourishing market in contemporary art and has done so for some considerable time. It was in fact in 1957 that the Emperor Haile Sellassie endowed the Fine Art School in Addis Ababa. As in so many other areas, demand outstrips supply and capacity: over 1000 students annually apply for a mere 25 places.

In that part of the title of Leah's talk devoted to 'making a living', the plain fact is that most artists simply don't and have to make ends meet by pursuing a thousand and one other occupations and/or spongeing off their families. Nothing unusual here - this emulates the plight of artists the world over.

'Contemporary' art is very much to be distinguished from religious art with which anyone who has had any connection with Ethiopia will be very familiar. Religious art is heavily stylized and uniquely lacking in perspective; not so contemporary art. Leah Niederstadt was able to illustrate her talk with a wide variety of work which showed just how far modern-day artists have departed from the traditional norm.

Religious art by traditional church artists still thrives and survives. But it was the battle of Adowa in 1896 that stimulated the move towards the depiction of non-religious themes. After this date, foreigners (ferendj) entered the country more than ever before.

The battle itself provided a favourite theme to begin with. Early works hanging in the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University are well worth seeing. The depiction of pipe-smoking ferendj is rather charming. Not nearly so charming, as our speaker pointed out, was a penchant for pictures of prisoners being tortured; although they seem to bear their ordeal, in painting at least, with a San Sebastian-like stoicism.

This influx of visitors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and ever since, has created and stimulated the art market. The market comprises: Ethiopian upper class homes; bars, restaurants and hotels; murals on Addis city walls and elsewhere; and tourist art for visitors (some of whom are Ethiopian ex-patriates) to buy and take home.

Servicing the market are Addis gallery owners and hotels. They operate entirely commercially. The Alliance Francaise in contrast mounts an exhibition every three weeks or so covering all artists' expenses. The only problem is you have to be good enough to be invited to take part! The subject matter covered by contemporary Ethiopian art is now as large as life itself. Abstract art and portraiture are however not as yet 'on the agenda'. This is odd as in the latter case, at least, a potentially lucrative source of income is not being exploited. But it can only be a question of time......

As for Ethiopian artists, their numbers abound: among the most successful are Ato Afewerq Tekle (who has attended at least two recent Society meetings), Behailu Bezzabe (who sold 24 pieces of work at the last Alliance exhibition), Gebre Christos Dessta and the Muslim female artist Ebtihaj. These names are but a few. There are many many more.

And now for the answer to the question that you must have been wondering about: what on earth is the significance of the words 'What's Up' in the title of the talk? Well, the term refers to one of Addis Ababa's two entertainment journals. No more than that. Somehow or other the two have been linked and the term 'What's Up' Art is the jargon of the day. Simple really!

Leah Niederstadt is not, she says, herself an artist. She is however building a collection of Ethiopian Art. Who is to say that she will not be to Ethiopian contemporary art what Charles Saatchi has been to British modern art. She certainly possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of her interest and hobby. The Society has been very fortunate to have sampled her enthusiasm. We learned a lot.

I for one eagerly anticipate any lecture she is able and willing to give on her work on circuses. It can only be just as fascinating.

Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

Behailu Bezabih
Harar Woman

Engdaget Legesse

Teferi Gizachew
Women with Pots

First Published in News File Winter 2003

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