Ethiopia is blessed with many extraordinary artists, and thought the ones trending certainly deserve the shine, we can never forget from whence we came and upon whose shoulders the 21st generation of artists stands. So as we look forward to the new year and all it has to offer in 2020, let us reflect on a few leading Ethiopian artists from the 20th century. Negash Wolde Amanuel was known for his photography clubs in the 1950’s, shortly after the Italian occupation was crushed by His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I. Negash lived in the capital city and acquired his first box camera, introduced after the Korean War, as a gift from his sister. By the late 50’s he would travel to Canada to attend O’Sullivan Business School in Montreal but then reality kicked in and he was off to study at the New York School of Photography. The sharp eyed photographer was then scooped up by Time Life Corporation but after a five year stint, returned home to Ethiopia to work at the Ethiopian Tourism Commission. According to Revue Noir, Negash’s work is divided into three categories; Studio portraits, outdoor photography and sports photography. So for you photo fans, Negash Wolde Amanuel is a name to now when speaking of Ethiopian photographers.
Tadesse Gizaw is another name which is meaningful to me personally as I have two of his works in my personal collection. Tadesse was born in 1935 and graduated from both the Technical School of Addis Abeba and Pratt Institute of Industrial Design in New York City. Known as a sculptor, he was also a designer and inventor, “whose house was transformed in a laboratory-studio. Prototypes, spare pieces, cutting machines, everything is home-made…the objects became sculptures…” and useful items such as the first Amharic typewriter, according to Revue Noir. However for visitors to the National Theater, it’s his exquisite metal and wire sculptors that most will recall for their graceful, timeless and formidable expression of the Ethiopian modern art movement.
Tibebe Terffa was born in 1948 in Harar and graduated from the now Alle School of Fine Art and Design, creating works which according to Tibebe, ‘translates art, life, world’ in words and images. He is definitely known as a philosopher and one conversation with the conscious and connected artist, especially in his foliage filled garden, leaves you in awe. He is not into trends nor does he follow the pack, instead he leads. Girma Hiwet is another name to remember. Just last month his widow Christine participated in a handover ceremony at the National Museum of Ethiopia where several of his works were received by the national institution. Girmay was born in 1949 and sadly passed away last year. Though he studied at Alle School of Fine Art and Design, he settled in Zurich where he would create some of his greatest masterpieces that have been exhibited widely in museums. A contemporary of his was Yohannes Gedamu who moved to Kenya after graduating from the Fine Art School. After three years in the East African haven for many fleeing the Derg, he went to Cologne Germany where he remained for decades until returning home in the early 2000 and passed over seven years ago. His works were powerful abstract statements with rich organic coloration that can be found in the Sheraton Hotel Addis and several top private collections.
I close with Skunder Boghossian, born in 1937 in Addis Abeba; a student of St. Martin’s Central, the Slade in the UK and the Ecole des Baux-Arts in Paris during the mid 20th century. It was there the curious artist’s social intellect would be challenged and would mushroom due to the plethora of Pan African and Negritude Movement figures he would come to know. He is said to have defined the Ethiopian modern art movement. “He begins a painting by deliberately creating accidental effects and included painted scrolls on a vibrant background which became his distinguished mark. His works are enriched with symbols, motifs, forms and shapes drawn from his won Ethiopian heritage.” His work was exhibited world wide and he has participated in countless prestigious international art fairs including the Biennale de Paris at the Muse d’Art Modeme in 1965, Festival des Art Negres, Dakar, 1966 and le Biennale Sao Paulo in 1965. His work is unceremoniously displayed at the Hilton Hotel lobby.
The purpose of this article is to evoke thoughts and curiosity into the history and development of Ethiopian art, hopefully inspiring collectors and artists alike, to glean if not to better understand with whom and how Ethiopian art has evolved and hence its trajectory. Too often we take our past for granted always appreciating the new, until it is not, but balance and true value for Creatives and their outstanding creations are a testament to this great nation.
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.