Category Archives: Addis Ababa

Now you see me, now you don’t: All the World’s Futures – the 56th Venice Biennale

All the World's Futures exhibition catalogue

All the World’s Futures exhibition catalogue and press material

Venice Biennale is back. Big. Bursting at the seams with art. From ‘traditional’ art forms like drawing and painting to conceptual pools of water. The biennale endures in its incredibly expansive character. Its political focus is not surprising seeing as curator Okwui Enwezor’s initial training is political science. In his catalogue essay, The State of Things, Enwezor says:

All The World’s Futures, (is) a project devoted to an appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things.”[1]

He refers to political turmoil since World War 1:

“… we live in the terrible wakefulness of new crises, uncertainty, and a deepening insecurity across all regions of the world.”[2]

This paints such a bleak picture of our times. I am intrigued, but also filled with trepidation. I am not sure if I want to be immersed in an art of activism, an art of preaching, an art that might disconcert me. I have lived through the Amin war and the Museveni war in Uganda. Do I want to confront other people’s reflections on such a ‘state of things’?

I recall the 2002 Documenta X1 in Kassel, Germany, for which Enwezor was Artistic Director. Turmoil was at the forefront even then. In the preface, Enwezor stated:

“… Documenta finds itself confronted once again with the spectres of yet another turbulent time of unceasing cultural, social, and political frictions, transitions, transformations, fissures, and global institutional consolidations.”[3]

It appears that Enwezor has continually attempted to articulate and make sense of this turmoil. I wonder how much longer we can afford to do this. Can artistic gestures chart a way forward?


In 1895 the first Venice Biennale was launched to celebrate the silver jubilee of King Umberto 1 and Princess Margherita of Savoia. It took two years to plan an exhibition of outstanding Italian art by Venice city council officials. King Umberto 1 was a decisive leader who attempted to reconcile various political and regional elements in Italy. He also personally directed and funded relief efforts when Venice and Verona suffered massive floods in 1882. Venice municipality never forgot. Over time the biennale grew bigger to include German and Austrian artists, then other Europeans. Later foreign countries had a stake in the Giardini, the main exhibition space, with Belgium building the first national pavilion in 1907. Today there are 29 pavilions in the Giardini and other national exhibitions without pavilions are installed in various buildings across the city, as well as additional exhibitions and events. The aspiration for an international art exhibition presenting a broad range of art continues today.

Entrance to the Giardini

Entrance to the Giardini

Presence. Absence.

King Umberto 1 had expansionist ideals for his foreign policy. Italy attempted colonial expansion in the Horn of Africa, making progress in Eritrea, capturing Massawa in 1885, before being defeated in 1896 in the Battle of Adwa, northern Ethiopia. However, there are no visible traces of this relationship at the biennale. The gains in that battle are still celebrated in Ethiopia today. It is in the pantheon of current ‘state of things’ in this part of the world. Addis Ababa is present as a stop on the Invisible Borders: The Trans-African Project with a sampling of photographs of the landscapes they traversed by Emeka Okereke, Beautiful Obstacle, en route Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (2011), Portrait of a Group in Ethiopia, Goha Bridge, Ethiopia (2012), and Ala Keir’s Equilibrium, Addis Ababa – Ethiopia, IB 2011, a photograph of an Anbessa bus headed downhill on Churchill road, set against skyscrapers full of bright new businesses. Keir’s photograph makes visible the city’s social and economic realities and challenges: an overcrowded public transport system against nascent Addis Ababa with an opulent hedonist ethic.


Invisible Borders: The Trans-African Project, Installation view, Venice Biennale, 2015

Invisible Borders: The Trans-African Project, Installation view, Venice Biennale, 2015

Uganda is also invisible at the biennale yet she has a significant connection with Italy. Italian missionaries were at the helm of education and health provision in northern Uganda since the 1950s. I went to a nursery school in Gulu town run by Italian nuns in the mid 1970s. On a trip to Gulu five years ago, I was delighted to find it still running, by Ugandan nuns this time. Well, consider that an aside.

But Aboke Girls. That is crucial. In 1996, under cover of darkness and ironically on Uganda’s Independence Day 9th October, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army abducted 139 secondary school girls from St. Mary’s College, Aboke, Apac District. The deputy headmistress Italian nun Sister Rachele Fassera and a male teacher bravely pursued and rescued 109 of them. The effects of this war and others like it run deep in the world consciousness.

Another event of national significance is the successful climbing to the summit of Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains by Luigi Amedeo, Duke of Abruzzi, nephew of the Umberto family, and his party in 1906. He named the highest peak at 16,810 feet after his aunt Margherita. The geopolitical ‘state of things’ has shrouded the Rwenzoris in a contrasting veil of nature’s bountiful beauty and guerrilla activities. A similar cloud hangs over Kampala’s art production and reception where elites and expats form the core audience. The KLA ART festival has attempted to break this state of affairs by taking art out of galleries and directly to the people in unexpected sites across Kampala, for instance, on boda boda motorcycle taxis, and in the Railways Building. Artists are gradually engaging a strategic mobility arising out of a need to broaden their audiences by using the Internet and taking advantage of international residencies and exhibitions. Some, for instance, Samson Ssenkaaba Xenson and Helen Nabukenya are adaptable and attempt to navigate a world whose fluidity in expression, presentation, and political and temporal concerns can be difficult to decipher.

Much of the art exhibited in Venice Biennale is under the umbrella of national pavilions. It takes a certain level of political acumen and economic heft to position a country at this level of cultural diplomacy and visibility. Even if many artists criticize catastrophic systems of governance, participation in the biennale is a clear indication of the current state of economic things, the disparity between governments’ engagement with the arts.



“Can a work of art bear witness to its time…?”[4]

Enwezor asks in All the World’s Futures his catalogue essay. I ask then, does the art discomfit the viewer enough to urge them to look beneath the surface of things? How about the art that is not seen, because it cannot, yet, afford to be seen? This level of invisibility brings to mind Italian writer Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities a series of imagined conversations between emperor Kublai Khan and traveller Venetian Marco Polo. These city descriptions exist as Polo’s memory of Venice, presented as recollections in pantomime before he learns Kublai Khan’s language, and then as contemplative, inventive descriptions when he can speak the Tartar language. There is a complexity of communication and a high level of imagination that conjures these cities into being for both the emperor and Polo. Calvino provides us an example of the possibilities latent in imagination, in memory, in places, in people, to communicate across barriers. Leafing through his atlas, over cities embroiled ‘in nightmares and maledictions’, Kublai Khan was disheartened that all effort of empire building led to naught if the final resting place was an ‘infernal city.’

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.”[5]

Polo suggested two ways of getting out of this inferno: first, to accept it and be such a part of it that it is inseparable from you. The second one requires constancy in seeking enduring alternatives that then need room to have an impact.

When world problems are identified, how are we to understand them in order to formulate alternatives? Are these problems that nations can address as separate entities, or do we need to try and expand collective action beyond activist groups to include whole nation states? How do we achieve equity and justice? How do we eliminate extremes in wealth and poverty? Are any works of art outstanding in proposing potential paths out of this predicament? Is it the function of art to serve these purposes? Is there an imagination, like that of Calvino’s Kublai Khan that we can wield?

The Icelandic Pavilion presented Christoph Buechel’s La Moschea installation in Santa Maria della Misericordia, a former Catholic church now privately owned. Venice authorities fearful of extremist reactions and citing regulation disobedience closed it after two weeks. Buechel claimed to be promoting religious tolerance in this historic city where trade with Islamic countries has a long history, but no house of worship for Muslims exists. The process of getting the church to function as a mosque involved consultation with local Moslem communities whose spiritual vitality was evidenced in the numbers that turned up to worship. The crucial process of dialoguing that Buechel undertook might form a basis for transparency and perhaps tolerance. But where are the limits of art?

Emeka Ogboh, The Song of the Germans (Deutschlandlied), 2015, installation view, Venice Biennale 2015

Emeka Ogboh, The Song of the Germans (Deutschlandlied), 2015, installation view, Venice Biennale 2015

A solemn sound installation The Song of the Germans (Deutschlandlied), 2015, by Emeka Ogboh struck a cord for me. It is a thoughtful and meticulously researched work. The German national anthem is sung by a choir made up of immigrants from Africa, and presented as a ten-channel installation in a dark room at the far end of the Arsenal. In their varied languages, the reverent rendering of the anthem touches on issues regarding identity formation; creating community; the richness endowed through diversity; and proffers a sense of belonging to a common destiny in a place where fate often deals migrants a different hand from their gilded expectations. It was poignant, so much so that I was glad that its display site opens to the outdoors. Water. A garden. A place to absorb the full resonance of this work. Ogboh has been travelling to Addis Ababa conducting research for his African Union, Peace and Security building sound installation commission. Again he uses an anthem, the African Union anthem, as a centrifugal force from which all other elements emanate. To forge a future out of All the World’s Futures ‘state of things’ might lines from the German national anthem be torchbearers? “Unity and justice and freedom … let us all strive for this purpose …”


[1] Okwui Enwezor, “The State of Things,” in la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures, Biennale Arte 2015, Exhibition catalogue, 019.

[2] Ibid., 018.

[3] Okwui Enwezor, in preface to Documenta 11_Platform 5: Ausstellung / Exhibition, Kurzfuhrer / Short Guide, 2002, 6.

[4] Okwui Enwezor, “The State of Things,” in la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures, Biennale Arte 2015, Exhibition catalogue, 019.

[5] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver (London: Vintage, 1997), 165.


of Women by Women

I am co-curating the Ethiopian Women’s Art Contest with the ongoing art exhibition at the Alle School of Art and Design, Addis Ababa University. The art on display explores the theme of women by women artists. The United States Ambassador to Ethiopia, Ambassador Patricia Haslach, called on all Ethiopian women artists living in Ethiopia, to celebrate their creativity and be recognised for it. Her call got a reverberating response. This exhibition presents prize-winning art alongside submissions from each contestant, totaling one hundred and twenty eight artworks. They reveal a broad range of approaches among a multi-generation group of Ethiopian artists.

These paintings, drawings, photographs, installations, and sculptures utilize social construction of femininity, cultural narratives, spirituality, and aesthetics, taking critical positions through a self-conscious gaze at identity. Sometimes the subjects are dark other times humorous, telling stories of fear, survival, and joy; the results are poetic and insightful, gorgeous and prophetic. Betelhem Jekale’s Rape broaches a subject rarely discussed openly. Her unflinching emphasis on materials employs incriminating items such as a little girl’s stained underwear, focusing our attention on the surface of the artwork, while taking on metaphorical significance. Nebiat Abebe’s Rising is a non-representational celebration of women’s resilience. She explores the physical properties of acrylic paints while giving the viewer philosophical space to ponder.

This contest is a vital addition to the spaces through which women’s voices can be heard. The exhibition presents a cross-section of women’s positions in society, suggesting a time in the future where access to opportunities might be more equitable.

Workneh Bezu: The Big Picture Between You and Me

Solo exhibition at Alliance Ethio-Francaise January 20-30, 2015

Workneh Bezu installation shot, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, 2015

Workneh Bezu
installation shot, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, 2015

The first impression I had of Workneh Bezu’s exhibition was a feeling of being enveloped by colour. According to the wall text, this solo exhibition of mixed media paintings portrayed the meeting and co-existence of Islam and Christianity in Ethiopia. The predominant motifs were angels, children, Arabic Abjad script, and the fidel, Ethiopian script and alphabet. However, the Capital newspaper of Sunday January 25th, 2015 suggests that it is more about children and happiness. Just as Workneh presents the two faiths side by side, I think these varied spiritual and secular readings can blissfully co-exist.

Workneh Bezu installation shot, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, 2015

Workneh Bezu
installation shot, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, 2015

The Alliance Ethio-Francaise gallery in Piassa is a beautiful space whose high ceilings always enhance the art viewing experience. A visit to the exhibition with someone proficient at reading Amharic and Arabic would have made the exhibition even more meaningful. All the art is un-titled; therefore, the script must be the path to deeper engagement.

Workneh Bezu installation shot, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, 2015

Workneh Bezu
installation shot, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, 2015

Religious imagery has historically appeared in manuscript illustrations, in murals on Orthodox Church walls, and on wood panels. These church paintings are a medium through which believers seek intercession to God. Workneh draws on this tradition. He simultaneously employs text from the Koran to create heavily textured paintings rich in image and language. In the 7th century, Prophet Mohammed’s early followers fled persecution in Mecca and sought refuge in the Aksumite Empire, present-day northern Ethiopia. The migrants were given refuge by King Armah. Since then, Islam has spread across many regions of Ethiopia. Workneh’s marriage of differing artistic histories is a deliberate juxtaposition to illustrate the co-existence of Islam and Christianity in Ethiopia. His parents are from both religions. For him, this subject holds personal resonance, in a global context it serves as a beacon of hope amidst an environment fraught with religious prejudice. He urges us to pay close attention to a possibility of peaceful co-existence: “A finger that points to the sun is not a sun itself; yet, it deserves respect for the mere fact that it points.”

Workneh Bezu is one of the Habesha Art Studio collective of artists. Their studio is located just off Arat Kilo, on the slip road across the road from Asni Gallery and St. Mathew’s church. He is happy to continue conversations in person or via his website.

Daudi Karungi of Afriart Gallery, Kampala

Daudi Karungi of Afriart Gallery, Kampala.

Mihret Kebede

Mihret Kebede.

Addis Ababa: The Enigma of the ‘New’ and ‘Modern’

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.

Siddist Kilo, Addis Ababa

Siddist Kilo, Addis Ababa

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. 

Fana Wogi 2013, Installation view

Fana Wogi 2013, Installation view, curated by Aida Muluneh

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.

Neglected Heritage: Architecture of the First 50 Years of the Capital of Africa, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, September 2013

Neglected Heritage: Architecture of the First 50 Years of the Capital of Africa, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, 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.

Tewodros Hagos, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, Addis Ababa, 2013

Tewodros Hagos, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, Addis Ababa, 2013


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.

Elias Sime, Tightrope, Addis Ababa, October 2013

Elias Sime, Tightrope, Addis Ababa, October 2013. Photo by Brent Wolff

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.

Michael Tsegaye, Chasms of the Soul --- a Shattered Witness, 2013

Michael Tsegaye, Chasms of the Soul — a Shattered Witness, 2013

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.

Mulugeta Gebrekidan, Eyerus and Bethlehem, Installation view, Modern Art Museum: Gebre Kristos Desta Center, October 2013

Mulugeta Gebrekidan, Eyerus and Bethlehem, Installation view, Modern Art Museum: Gebre Kristos Desta Center, October 2013

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?

Mihret Kebede, installation view, Modern Art Museum: Gebre Kristos Desta Center, Addis Ababa,October 2013

Mihret Kebede, installation view, Modern Art Museum: Gebre Kristos Desta Center, Addis Ababa,October 2013

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.

Berhanu Ashagre, installation view, Modern Art Museum: Gebre Kristos Desta Center, Addis Ababa, October 2013

Berhanu Ashagre, installation view, Modern Art Museum: Gebre Kristos Desta Center, Addis Ababa, October 2013

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.

Installation shots German House exhibition