Ask anyone to define African art and you will get a very stereotypical definition that creates images of wooden craved masks, paintings of bustling marketplaces or women carrying water, babies or something on their backs. Ofcourse we realize this is not the extent of art from Africa, which may be the better term than African art, for argument sake. After all, who ever called Picasso’s art Spanish? “Defying the Narrative: Contemporary Art from West and Southern Africa,” is a recently opened exhibition in the USA whose goals is to topple notions of and overstanding of African art. The exhibition includes works from a wide range of emerging and established artists from various countries in Africa and is curated in a warehouse in San Francisco.
In Ethiopia, we tend to celebrate traditional art work which preserves and promotes indigenous heritage, knowledge and techniques, from painting styles to the even making paint from plants. This artistic expression should protect traditional knowledge and has an important place in our society. On the other hand, Ethiopian fine artist must find away to articulate current social situations in a way to record the time, space and circumstances surrounding us, that when historians look back in time they have a visual reference point that speaks volumes. Now this is not for the many, but certainly for the few who will one day be mentioned in history books, even if their art is not celebrated during their lifetime. This fact should not discourage the true artist.
On the landscape of politics, economics and other concerns from society, especially in a fast changing society such as seen in Addis Ababa, the artists has a particular role, in my opinion. Not only can they be rapporteurs creating visual record of time, they are also intimately linked to the every day citizen who according to Bob Marley poignant line, “…who feels it knows it…”. Artists live with the people, they work with the people and to a great extent depend on the people to feed, inspire and provoke them into manifesting on canvas what is felt in the hearts of so many. Be it despair, hope, depressions, poverty, prosperity and the list on a spectrum of emotions goes on and on. Without the visual voice of the artist, who is there to express, in an uncensored manner, what one truly feels.
Ethiopian contemporary fine artists should be motivated and awarded for original works original ideas and original approaches to their art. The wholesale copying of contemporary works should not be accepted and when we see it we should say something, as it dampens the spirit of original artists working hard in their own right. To value ones’ self and ones’ work should be an absolute major component of creativity. I do advise artists who are copying and buyers, gallerists, dealers who encourage this practice to cease as one day Intellectual Property rights and other modalities to protect artists will be realized and one must make sure they are not just on the right side of the law. but on the right side of history as well.
“It is these tender feelings of deep and silent admiration evoked from our hearts by the beauties of creation that should find adequate expression in the fine arts. If you are open minded and ready to learn, there are many things which you can learn not only from books and instructors, but from the very life experience itself.” HIM Haile Selassie I.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.