Ayalneh Mulatu, renowned poet and play writer is the new President of the Ethiopian Artistic Charitable Association created by artists to come together and support each other. He spoke to Capital’s Elias Gebreselassie about the work the association is doing and the state of the Arts in Ethiopia.
Capital: Tell us about the Ethiopian Artistic Charitable Association and what is it doing to help keep notable artists from fading in the memories of Ethiopians?
Ayalneh: Our association wishes to help and assist Ethiopian artists not only when they are alive and working but also keep their memory alive after they pass away. Our support will help further their knowledge, which ultimately really helps society in general. You can describe the Ethiopian Artistic Charitable Association as a foundation that allows artists to unite and support more art. Our objectives are to help the artists and the art. As we all know Ethiopian artists residing here do not make much money, and when they die, they often don’t even have enough money for a proper burial. Those artists, who have a lot of friends or are close to very rich people, can get help while they’re alive as well as get a proper funeral. But for the other deceased artists, you wouldn’t even know where they’re buried. Right now it is almost impossible to find the resting place of the late great theatre actor Wegayehu Negatu, who died not long ago; or the renowned singer Bizunesh Bekele and poet Yoftahe Nigussie. The main idea is to respect those artists who worked and served the Ethiopian people and society and have since passed away; to help keep their legacy, their families and their artistic works.
Capital: Since you were established, have you been able to help any artists?
Ayalneh: We are only about a year old; so there is not a lot we have accomplished at this time, but we immediately faced the sickness of veteran “Kirar” player [traditional guitar like musical instrument] and singer Asnakech Worku, who subsequently passed away. With the help of President Girma Woldegiorgis, we found a place to bury her. We are now organizing a task force to build a tombstone for her in the church which is in the process of being finished. We’ve also organized for a doctor from Germany to come and treat several bedridden artists. So far that’s what we’ve done, but we’ve still got to be better organized because we can’t say we’ve done a lot of things. We have many plans. We are working with a German based association headed by Prince Asfaw Wossen Asrate who came here to help us. And in the future there’s a lot of interesting projects we’ve planned for Ethiopian art in conjunction with the Prince’s organization and other bodies.
Capital: How are you promoting your organization?
Ayalneh: We’ve published a calendar with pictures of 12 late Ethiopian artists to keep their memory alive. The calendar was distributed here and abroad. We’ve also printed pamphlets, as well as publicized our cause through print and electronic media and we are not trying to promote ourselves. The biggest accomplishment so far was getting President Girma Woldegiorgis as president of this association, which is great for us and for the artists too, as we can do a lot of things with him.
Capital: You believe that Ethiopian culture is facing dilution, or that people are not properly learning about their culture. How do you plan to address this in your association?
Ayalneh: You are right. In theater and cinema we don’t have the required foundation. It’s a hundred year old profession according to various studies. I think this is one of the problems we’re facing with Ethiopian artists. If these artistic professions are going to be the basis of Ethiopian art, I think that development will need to be very strong otherwise it’s going to be on the surface. You can’t have culture just on the surface, it’s got to have a basis, and that base is in Ethiopian nations and nationalities. Hence we’ve planned several seminars, workshops and others, to basically educate especially the Ethiopian artists, actors, musicians and dancers. You can see what kind of dancing we’re dealing with in Ethiopian art. It’s amusing in a way, because you can’t say if the style is from Gojjam or Gondar; it’s a kind of mixture of Ethiopian and European styles, which also goes for the traditional dresses that are completely distorted. To work on this you have to have some kind of seminars, workshops, discussions and written materials. Very soon we want to produce a well researched magazine focusing on Ethiopian art.
Capital: As a playwright and theater person, what should we expect from you in the future?
Ayalneh: Literature cannot be changed by a single individual; it must be connected with the society. Society should learn, basically as I told you through education, which in Ethiopia is problematic as its strategy is a hundred years old. Maybe this education has helped me to dress in a certain way or drive a car and so forth, but to develop art in Ethiopia, the education has been useless so far. Basically you have to change from the base that is the education system, which I can’t change on my own. For instance I’ve been teaching literature and journalism at the Addis Ababa University (AAU), for a long time. But personally I can’t change the situation because you are under a set educational system.
As for me, maybe I can write a play based on Ethiopian culture, but it’s an individual act, while the other vast majority of writers will write the other way, hence it doesn’t change anything. So I’m trying to do my part but so far it hasn’t been supported substantially by the pertinent sides.
Capital: Any last comment?
Ayalneh: I would just like to call on the Ethiopian public, to acknowledge our artists who have done great things for the society. They haven’t gotten much from the society; they lived meagerly and died poor. They haven’t changed or bettered themselves, so my call is for the Ethiopian society to help the artists help themselves. We don’t want our artists to be begging on the road for alms, let them organize themselves and let them do it by themselves; be strong by themselves. For this to happen the society has to help us, the Ethiopian media has to stand with us and in front of the society.
Also, as you know media without art is nothing. 85 percent of the Ethiopian Television programs use the artists either through drama, or music or something. If that contribution is vividly seen by everyone, then the media has to help us organize and free ourselves from poverty. The Ethiopian government on its part has also been served by the artists in cases of national problem or crisis. They are the first citizens who go together with the army, the leadership and so forth. So, if they contribute this much the government in turn has to help us organize ourselves, to be strong and stand in order not to beg anybody. This is what I’m passing to the Ethiopian mass on behalf of the association.