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In order for Ethiopia’s rapidly growing creative class to gain traction the artist community must be supported. There is a plethora of art for sale at tourist shops and cafes and for those that can afford it there is fine art by local professional artists. Many do not realize that the artist only gets around a quarter of the sale amount writes Dr. Desta in her inaugural column at Capital:
When one thinks of Ethiopian art and what to buy, the mind’s eye roams through a range of iconic and stylized paintings from cross-carrying priests; to lush landscapes dotted with meskel flowers; and beautiful afro-wearing women in traditional dress. Such art is affordable and in abundance at touristy shops, restaurants and cafes; produced by talented local artists. On the other side of the spectrum is contemporary fine art. These works tend to express social, political and cultural narratives in the form of paintings, sculptures, photography etc. and are usually created by art school graduates. Prices range from five to six figures and are mostly sold and exhibited in art studios, galleries and museums. Both genres have a place in society. However, my focus is on fine art in the context of cultural development as an integral economic driver in Ethiopia and Africa in general.
By myriad accounts, Ethiopia is ‘Africa’s fastest growing economy’ and according to E&Y Cultural Times,“…a growing middle class controlling more disposable income…urbanization, coupled with the development of cultural activities, is also fueling the emergence of a new economic class…”. Urban Studies experts label this sector the “creative class” which includes architects, engineers, IT developers, and other knowledge-based professionals. In order to assure Ethiopia’s effective inching towards a flourishing art industry, edification of this sector is essential. Some 101 questions include: Which artist should I buy and why? Why is fine art so expensive? Can’t I buy art because I love it? What is the difference between buyers and collectors?
Artists choose to express ideas through various media. For instance, award-winning photographer Aida Muluneh has a ubiquitous artistic kwankwa converging graphic design, photography, and painting. While renowned painter, Merid Tafesse, is known as King of Charcoal for his prodigious appropriation of the medium, routinely used for studies and sketches. Then Tesfahun Kibru, innovatively, creates metal and rubber sculptures and paintings through industrial up-cycling. So when choosing, take time to research the artists’ media, process and motivation to help deepen the connection and understanding, as your purchase will be displayed in your home or office for years. Another approach for choosing an artist is the “message”. Some artists choose to focus on social or political issues from gender and equality to environment and identity. Collecting such art popularizes the message and the messenger.
Contemporary art marks time, place and circumstance, and as related to cost, is viewed as an investment yielding benefits for buyer, artist and society. “When you buy art through a gallery the chances of the work scaling up is increased, ensuring your investment,” says Mesai Haileleul, Co-Founder Addis Fine Art Gallery. The Louvre in Paris, Tate in London and Met in New York, pillars for tourism, welcome millions of visitors to view Monet, Picasso, or Basquiat, all of whom started in obscurity. So once you find your artwork, assess a few variables to help with the valuation. Did the artist attend art school and if so where? Where is their work exhibited and how long have they been selling/showing? What is their current price point of works? Does the artist have media presence? Who else is collecting their work? Is there academic review? Is art their exclusive profession? Did you know that artists signed to galleries may earn a mere 25% of the sale price after their expenses and pay up to 50% commission to galleries? The commission covers costs receptions, development, promotion, staff, space and approximately 45% in taxes.
The love of art, the evocation of a memory, aspiration or current situation that speaks to the soul, triggering the spontaneous urge to buy, is the best. This is what helps distinguish between buyer and collector, in my experience. Buyers tend to purchase art for investment or intent to re-sell at some point. Collectors usually maintain their works for successive generations; and/or loan their works to museums; and/or share with the public through exhibitions and catalogues. Both buyers and collectors are important for the industry.
Finally, the Addis Ababa art scene is currently a multi-million birr sector, employing hundreds of youth and women, with potential for billions. According to Richard Florida, urban studies theorist, “…the creative class is the incarnation of the triptych ‘Technology, Talent and Tolerance,’…a key motor of growth…in urban areas…”. So get out those check books and let’s start filling these new buildings, houses and apartments with contemporary fine art.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant and cultural promoter, curating major exhibitions in Ethiopia and abroad over the past 13 years, since settling in Addis Ababa as Managing Director of the Bob Marley Foundation, producing Africa Unite/Bob Marley’s 60th Birthday. She is also the Liaison to the African Union for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.