ART & PUBLIC SPACES THE ROAD TO SOCIAL COHESION

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“…this field is very rich…than piling up concrete, if we build such a project for art, our human moral development will be hastened.”

Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed

Designed in three months by Addis Ababa University students, alum and UMBC Graphic Design Professor, Genet Abraham; and built in a few following months, the Entoto Yehizibi T’ibebi Ma‘ikeli (Entoto Public Art Center) opened with a grand group exhibition including Addis Ababa University Alle School of Fine Art and Design alum’s art, gracing the inaugural event. Curated by Alle School of Fine Art Team, with works on loan from four generations of the finest Ethiopian artists including Gebre Kristos Desta, Yohannes Gedamu, Desta Hagos, Mulugeta Tafesse, Bahailu Bezabu, Tadesse Mesfin, Daniel Taye, and Merid Tafesse to name a handful, it was indeed a dream come true for us art aficionados. The Entoto Public Art Center is designed with high ceilings, natural lighting, climate control and more, setting an international standard for exhibitions in Addis, the diplomatic capital. In a cordial and brotherly exchange between the art loving Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Art School Director, Agegnehu Adane, sentiments were shared that says it all.
Agegnehu Adane: “For this useful project, you did, I want to thank you on the name of the artists.”
PM Abiy: “Maybe you forgot I did promise you last time.”
Agegnehu Adane: “No I didn’t forget, but I didn’t expect it to happen this fast.”
PM Abiy: “You deserve even more this is not enough…this field is very rich…than piling up concrete, if we build such a project for art, our human moral development will be hastened.”
Agegnehu Adane: “Long life, I am proud of you.”
PM: “Long life for you too, live for your country.”
Dubbed the lungs of Addis, Entoto’s newest additions are manifestations of the PM’s commitment towards nation building through the arts with like-minded cohorts such as curator, anthropologist and sheer creative genius, Meskerem Assegued, co-founder of Zoma Museum with Elias Sime. Zoma Park Mender, also a new addition to Entoto Park, features winding manmade rivers, walking paths, children spaces, restaurants and more. Meskerem states, “As a nation, we have a potential to realize what looks like the impossible. Therefore, we can make poverty history by working hard for the betterment of all Ethiopians.” She further states, “When we change our mindset, our journey towards prosperity would be successful; wealth is not only about cash but also all about attitudinal change. Change in mind is a way for all-inclusive development.” I have been a major fan of Meski’s for 15 years, watching her put her shoulder to the wheel while keeping her eyes on the prize; and after decades of digging in her heels, she has created yet another organic and holistic space which has employed over 150 people with opportunities for more employment in the near future. This is what happens with solid public private partnerships; success for all. This is NOT about trickle-down economics.
Pardon the pun, but while we are not out of the woods with political and geo-political goings on playing out, one thing is for sure, Ethiopian art and green spaces have a champion in the young Nobel Prize winning PM. He is facilitating the fulfilment of what us art activists and professionals have asserted for some time; art is transformative and creative spaces build social cohesion. Dr. Abiy, appears tuned into the principles of socio-spatial theory, particularly in urbanism, which speak to how infrastructure and society interact. In the case of Addis Abeba, parks and public access to art go hand in hand, as exemplified in social spaces such as Unity Park, Brotherhood Park and now Entoto Public Art Center; operating both as products and producers of change in urban settings, fostering social cohesion. The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health states, “Reviews of the relationship between nature and health suggest that social cohesion is positively influenced by the presence and quality of urban green spaces such as parks and forests.” While Arizona State University’s HeeKyung Sung argues, “…arts and cultural facilities, strategies, productions, and consumptions are important for community revitalization, which contains processes and outcomes that enhance social, cultural, and economic development.”
So here it is, unfolding before our eyes, the vision of Emperor Haile Selassie I whose opening speech at the Art School in 1958, which I often quote, “A purely materialistic art would be like a tree which is expected to bear fruit without flowering, and to sacrifice grace and beauty for mere utility. As We have stated time and 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 near future.”

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.