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Makush Art Gallery and Restaurant Owner Tesfaye Hiwet says they have been successful since day one of opening its doors in Addis Ababa. The establishment has continued to take on new young artists every year. Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, Capital’s Eskedar Kifle spoke with Tesfaye and Teferi Teshome, an artist at the gallery about their journey.
Capital: Tell us briefly how you got into this business.
Tesfaye: I’ve been working in food and art for the last 25 years. When I was in the US, I was the owner of a restaurant, an art gallery and a club all located in the same building. In the gallery I displayed African and African American art. Three months after the Derg’s fall, I came back to Ethiopia. While working in the US, I was only showing and promoting arts from other countries and not Ethiopia, and so one of the main reasons for coming back to Ethiopia was to see what I could do.
During the Derg days, artists could not really express anything they wanted. So I came here and I found a person who would be able to take me to their studios and I went and saw that even though it was a very controlled time for the art sector then, these artists had stacks of paintings in their house, beautiful art.
The artists did not have a space where they could show their work. If I didn’t think their work was really good, I wouldn’t have moved here and started this business. It is very difficult to uproot from a different country and move here without believing it was worth it.
Everything that I saw was more than I ever imaged. The artists were very young, fresh graduates of art schools or some that were still in school. I was decisive and in eight months I opened Makush. It is not just an art gallery, but also a good restaurant with an Italian Chef. I started with 25 artists, after the opening, it was immediately successful.
Our Ethiopian customers then, they weren’t even 10 percent, 90 percent of the art was bought by embassies and foreigners. Once the gallery gained popularity and many artists heard about it, they started coming to us, all of them wanted to have a gallery. I couldn’t accept all, I had to be selective. Currently, I have over a 100 artists that I work with and there are around 700 paintings at this gallery.
Capital: What did you consider to be challenging then when you started the business?
Tesfaye: There wasn’t a challenge really, but a lot of excitement. Returning to the country after all these years and venturing into doing the work I love in Ethiopia, was all exciting. I guess what I would call challenging was to meet with artists and select from the many art works that were available.
I haven’t stopped selecting new works, still now; at least once a year I select 10 new young artists from art schools.
Capital: Looking at the journey of the art scene in the last 15 years, how has it evolved would you say? There are some that claim current young artists tend to copy many of their works, what do you think?
Tesfaye: The work of an artist starts from inside themselves. An artist is not a mechanic. For artists, to do something that is not inside them is very difficult. Artists can be influenced by other artists, by their teachers or what they see on magazines or elsewhere. I don’t think this is a bad thing necessarily.
If the artists that want to work with us tend to have similar ideas and works, we encourage them to take a step back, look at their work and help them understand where their influence comes from. I would say that 95 percent of the artists we have do not copy other works. They try to create from what is inside them.
Capital: For you as an artist, what has Makush meant to you and how has this space helped you with your artistic journey?
Teferi Teshome: During the beginning of the 90s, those of us from art school, after graduation, we would be hired to work in a printing press, there was no such a thing as doing our own paintings and being able to sell it. It was the same for those that were before us as well.
Then Tesfaye opened Makush, and he came to see us and saw our work. I had my own paintings then that I just put in the house, around 20 of them. What he did was that he gave us proof that our work could actually be sold and we could make money off of our passion.
My work is well known in West Africa. I have been able to concentrate on my work and show my paintings in different parts of the world. I got a lot of opportunities to show case my work in different countries through this gallery.
Capital: What kind of career as an artist would you have had if this gallery was not established here?
Teferi: In the 80’s during the Derg rule, all paintings that were done were related to the revolution. After students graduated from an art school either they went to work at an advertisement agency or the printing press. That is what we were doing as well before the gallery opened, so that would have probably continued. It would have continued and changed along with the political changes within the country.
When asked about what I wanted to be growing up, I always said I wanted to be a painter and at school, whenever the teacher asked if anybody could draw things for the class like the map of Africa, I always did that. So I guess I wouldn’t have been able to pursue this passion of mine in a way that I have been able to if the gallery didn’t open at that point in time.
Tesfaye: They all as jobs then, working on advertisements, drawing and getting paid from 15 birr to maximum to 400 birr. The difference is that, now, doing what they love to do, artists makes around 20,000 birr per month, nobody really makes less than 10,000 birr per months. So in the last 15 years, the artists that have worked with me have been able to do well with their career as well as general lives, they live well.
We have gone to many places with group exhibitions. I have a lot of connections that made it easier to do so. We went to New York many times as well as Washington DC, Atlanta and we have also gone to Europe in places such as France and Sweden.
Our last show was in Ireland, it was a big show held in a 300 years old museum. Ethiopian Airlines has also been very supportive by usually giving us free tickets when we travel to show our paintings.
Capital: There is usually this idea that most galleries are unfair and they take advantage of the artist when it comes to finances. How does your gallery function in that regard?
Tesfaye: It is straight forward. An artist brings one of their works, they tell me the price they have in mind for the work, and me, since I have years of experience, I would know whether or not the painting would sell for that price.
Many artists get excited in the beginning and try to sell everything for a high price which doesn’t really work. In the last six, seven years, the numbers of Ethiopian clients have been increasing. Now when people build their house and decorate it, they don’t just put posters or photographs on the walls, they buy paintings; same thing for hotels and so on.
So what we do at the gallery, we come with a price that makes sense and we split it with the artist 50-50. Most times, it is better to try to sell five paintings at a fair price than one painting at a high price.
So the artists here are all aware of how much their paintings are being sold for because the price is set before hand and it is clearly put in system/catalogue. Every year we might increase the prices a little bit but not that much. We have never had any problems with artists due to pricing.
Capital: Is there anything that makes Makush different than the other galleries that are around now?
Tesfaye: The biggest difference is that Makush is a permanent gallery and we have a lot of works, close to 700. So size wise also we are the biggest.
What other places do is that, they hold an exhibition; be it with one artist or a group of artists. This exhibition will stay open for a limited amount of time and it is during that time where people can go and see and buy. After that particular show closes, another one with a different artist opens.
So the main difference is that we are a permanent gallery.
Capital: You have spent 15 years on this place; do you have anything new planned for the coming years?
Tesfaye: I want to increase the shows we do abroad as much as I can. Other than that, I have been working very hard for a long time so I don’t really want to venture into a new thing.
This gallery has been working very well and has become successful so I want to continue to sustain it on this level. I am living a very peaceful life now, I love this place, every time I come here I see a different painting and I enjoy it. I like where I am now.
Capital: What about you Teferi, what are your future plans with your work and with the gallery?
Teferi: I also want to travel to more places, let people experience my work and learn about it. It is obviously difficult to be a fulltime artist, but I do want to spend more time creating new paintings and reduce the time spent focusing on other things.