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“We consider it a matter of great importance to revise and develop the fine arts in Our country in a manner which will enable Our artists to combine the historical and traditional art of Ethiopia with the advantages of modern technical developments in the field.” H.I.M. Haile Selassie I
On July 23rd, the premier art school in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa University Ale School of Fine Art and Design (ASFAD) will enjoy its 60th year anniversary. That day in history, also the b-earthday of the art loving monarch, H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie I offered the following advice in the Art School’s inaugural speech. “We have established this institution because We consider it a matter of great importance to revise and develop the fine arts in Our country in a manner which will enable Our artists to combine the historical and traditional art of Ethiopia with the advantages of modern technical developments in the field.” And so they did.
ASFAD was the first university based art school on the continent to be established by Africans for Africans, as 1958 had a mere eight independent African countries. Realizing the significance of the art school and arts in general, The Emperor personally continued to visit and support the young budding Ethiopian art students for the decades of His reign. With his sentiments setting the tone for the trajectory of fine art out of Ethiopia, the School’s namesake and frankly the inspiration for the Majesty’s backing, Artist Alle Felege Selam, would live to see the school graduate hundreds of young aspiring artists. Consistent with the Majesty’s vision of the development of fine art, Ethiopia has produced some of the most outstanding yet underrated artists on the continent, in my opinion. The level of skills, vast array of media, cultural and contemporary content, and international representation at various international art fairs and biennales would make all Ethiopians feel proud. Yet we have much more to do to truly realize our full capacity in Fine Art.
Even with a handful of common Ethiopian household names including Gebre Kristos Desta, Laureate Afework Tekle, Eskinder Bogosian and Laureate Desta Hagos; we have yet to know the names of the other scores of artists over the decades who helped fulfill the aspiration of the founders and early visionaries of the art school. From the 1960’s to present, many of the exceptional graduates would also go on to receive higher education in fine art in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, USA, Germany, England and France. Upon returning home to Ethiopia, they pursued careers at their alma mater, in government offices, public and private commission for statues and murals and of course as studio artists. Most importantly, they would teach and mentor new generations of artists armed with the best international fine art education. That said, ASFAD has gone from providing diplomas in fine art to a range of degrees in five major departments including Industrial Design, Painting, Printmaking, Sculpture, Art Education. They also currently provide two graduate degree programs in Fine Art and Film Production, expanding the opportunities for artists to pursue education that subsequently opens up myriad career prospects.
The King who loved culture desired the development of an African country firmly positioned and recognized on the international art stage, affirming its past contributions and future potential stating, “The ancient paintings that are still to be seen in the great monasteries and churches of Ethiopia, and the carvings in wood and stone which have come down to us in the ruins of the ancient palaces, bear witness to the fact that the fine arts had attained a comparatively high degree of development even in very early times.”
So parents, when your talented children tell you they would like to pursue degrees in fine art, do not worry and do not consider it is any less valuable than a degree in higher education in Business, Engineering, Medicine or Law. Encourage their aspirations and affirm their God given gifts to create memorable and meaningful art works that will be historical markers of Ethiopia’s contributions to the world. So as we mark the 60th Anniversary of the Art School let us be inspired by the closing words of His Majesty’s opening speech of the art school. “As we have stated, time and time again, it is easy to begin but hard to finish, and We express on this occasion both our happiness at what we see here today, as well as Our strong hope to see this work which is now begun bearing fruit in the neat future.”
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She is also the Liaison to the African Union for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.