Exhibition at the Modern Art Museum: Gebre Kristos Desta Center, October 2013
review by Margaret Nagawa
Many residents of Addis Ababa bemoan the changes in the landscape but are also proud of the good roads that have been built and the railroad now in construction. They boast of a peaceful city with little crime. Addis Ababa is sprawling and in constant flux: a magnet for rural Ethiopians seeking work, and people of many nationalities in the diplomatic missions and business community.
Can an art exhibition possibly capture the dynamism present in Addis Ababa today?
These artists’ ambitious new projects are both personal and deliberately political. With a focus on the city, Addis Ababa, the exhibition explores the complex relationship between the new changes and the old lifestyles. Employing photography as a medium, the artists present a broad range of intimacy and alienation through portraiture and landscapes.
At the exhibition opening last week, eager visitors, mainly young university students, were raptly watching Mihret Kebede’s video installation on the outside of the museum. It was a tight squeeze to get through them in order to listen to Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis, the curator, give the exhibition opening speech. Upon entering the museum we were greeted by photographic installations of rubble on the floor by Berhanu Ashagre, and a strong smell of fresh paint. This is a group show just like Fana Wogi 2013 curated by Aida Muluneh that was installed in the museum previous to this. However, Fana Wogi is an annual competitive juried exhibition.
In medium and a focus on the city, it is similar to the architecture exhibition Neglected Heritage: Architecture of the First 50 Years of the Capital of Africa that was curated by Fasil Giorgis and Halazi Sewnet at the Alliance Francaise in September 2013.
As a photography-based exhibition it also stands in contrast to the Tewodros Hagos exhibition at Alliance Ethio-Francaise, which was all paintings exhibiting a masterly of drawing, a restraint with colour, and a keen observation.
In its interrogation of the city it is similar to Elias Sime’s ongoing exhibition Tightrope of monumental city maps made out of computer motherboards that he collected over 13 years, but it does not surpass his focused repurposing, recycling and reusing. Tightrope is curated by Meskerem Assegued and installed at four cultural centers in Addis Ababa: The British Council, Goethe Institute, Italian Cultural Institute and the Alliance Ethio-Francaise.
This exhibition of photography and installation could be found in any major art metropolis. It does not pander to the commercial, rather it is a statement, both political and academic. With a catalogue pointedly made for an external audience, it is clear that the curator intends for these artists to be noticed beyond Addis, and to possibly enter a broader art canon.
Michael Tsegaye deals with memory in his Future Memories as he photographs new skyscrapers juxtaposed against mud and wattle houses, that until recently housed the majority of Addis Ababa’s inhabitants. His other series Chasms of the Soul — a Shattered Witness is of portraits of deceased whose graves were demolished to make way for road construction. It is beautiful, hypnotic, yet chilling.
Mulugeta Gebrekidan addresses social reality by pointing out the inequalities in the city residents. As he walked the city photographing the dramatic changes through construction, he met a couple of schoolgirls who were curious about his photography. He developed a friendship with them and their family, gaining entry and thereby documenting their lives for over a year. After their house was razed to make way for a development, their two families and many others, stayed on the land, making makeshift houses out of plastic sheeting. This bleak existence is located between the opulent Sheraton hotel and the palace. The faces of these two girls, unfazed by the camera, are arresting and a testament to survival despite all odds.
Mihret Kebede, the only woman in this exhibition, explores narratives of exclusion. She sees an entanglement of development, identity and art. She explores these ideas through a billboard advertising nothing, rather a portrait of a man and a simple statement of his name. Since with power and money anyone can say whatever they want on a billboard, she problematizes this by seeking the powerful and wealthy to support her idea of saying something that does not need a billboard to be uttered: a name. In the exhibition, her installation traverses the past present and future, where identities were more fixed and predictable but are now more fluid and uncertain. She employs small size billboards in the middle of a highway, with halfway zebra crossings, and dying plants in the middle. The billboards thrive while the plants underneath them suffocate. At the opening night, one viewer crossed ‘the road’ and in the process broke one the ‘curbs’. Helen Zeru and myself were discussing this action: was the viewer moved to use the street? Does art have an inherent sanctity unknown to this viewer? Was the artwork so successful at communicating that he felt moved to engage with it in a very direct way?
Finally, Berhanu Ashagre in his exploration of place, displacement and notions of the becoming attempted to capture the concrete in the rubble at construction sites, as well as the ephemeral in the sounds of development and the thoughts of the people in the city. He exhibits these in the floor photographic installations, which my friend Marieke who I went with to the exhibition found extremely captivating.
The wall texts are all in English. Since Ethiopia’s national language is Amharic, it would be useful, and only right, to have parallel texts in Amharic in order to have the possibility of meaningful discussions with a broad range of exhibition visitors. As Konjit Seyoum lamented during the artists and curators talk at the Goethe Institute, Addis Ababa, it is a second dispossession of the already dispossessed.
Working in the overlapping shadows of development and poverty, these artists look for the unspoken, that which is not addressed in policy and talk of progress. Through collaborative processes, they find it in the rubble and the alienated of the city.