HISTORIC HOMES: A SPACE FOR FINE ART

As Addis Abeba booms with new buildings, capturing contemporary visions of a futuristic “New Flower,” what remains of 19th century architectural homes of antiquity are being reduced to rubble or questionably refurbished into less than treasured venues. The establishment of Addis Abeba in the late 1800’s was inspired by Empress Taitu’s curiosity which led to an expedition of scouts leaving Entoto Mountain for the indigenous flora and fauna with gushing rivers and healing hot springs. Not only would the Imperial House and its administration move shortly into the region, but they would begin building a bustling city between 1905 to 1925 to include Taitu Hotel, Bank of Abyssinia and Menelik Cinema amongst others. The past few years there have been many attempts to protect national heritage spaces which speak to the history and development of the capital city. However, when outcries are needed to end the destruction or mis-utilization of these spaces, artists can be found at the forefront.
On the current radar is Menelik Cinema dubbed “Seytan Bet” (House of Satan) located on Churchill Road. The famous stone building introduced film to Ethiopia in 1923, earning its alias from a society unfamiliar with strange images and tongues emanating from the screen. The mostly Orthodox agrarian society was appalled yet intrigued by the tech of the day. In the decades to follow, however, film production would not take off. Menelik Cinema would however influence the establishment of many movie theaters to date which dot every part of the city. It is this legacy, now preserved despite previous efforts to demolish the historic house for film, which is responsible for today’s trend of theaters, one of the earners in the local entertainment economy. Sadly, according to Wendwesen Kebede, Ethiopian Visual Arts Association (EVAA) Secretary GM, Menelik Cinema may yet be another missed opportunity for the arts community, city and country.
Over the past several years EVAA Sec. GM has lobbied for the use of the landmark building. Wendwesen said, “ EVAA has over 50 years as an Ethiopian association with experience in the arts. We have asked the governing bodies to give a space for art display/gallery…we requested this ancient house with full documentation on the purpose of the institution and the cinema house with detailed research, posing the question for the house to be used for traditional and/or fine art of Ethiopia. No answer has been given and rather… rented out as a woodwork factory. We are offended. Governing bodies must do more for historical and fine art and must first recognize (what it means) as a historic space with policies to support both.” As Ethiopia grapples with a hit to tourism, due to COVID and war, ironically amidst the establishment of sites to increase visitors, the arts community may need to re-think the approach to advocacy for recognition, space and support.
In a recent short article in the BBC, a small UK city has proposed a £1.2m plan to “ attract more tourists…focus(ing) on improving links between key landmarks… . Funding for work would in part come from the government’s Town Fund and £300,000 from a local philanthropist. The city has failed to attract visitor numbers relative to its abundant cultural and heritage assets.” Addis Abeba is a growing city with millions of permanent residents, wealthy business owners, expats and visitors who have disposable income and time to visit art spaces. Local venues for art are therefore crucial to develop the creative industry for visitors and locals alike. Does an alliance between the arts society and generous donors need to be forged to begin to see the needle moving within bureaucratic systems focused on building new and “better”? The 2015 Earnst and Young UNESCO commissioned report on Creative Cultural Industries revealed revenues in Africa and the Middle East are at just over $58.B employing over 2.4m people. However, in this year’s UNESCO Global Report they buttress EVAA’s position, entitled Re|Shaping Policies for Creativity – Addressing Culture as a Global Public Good, “…to address the growing challenges of the CCSs and reaffirm their key role in the resilience and regeneration of economies and societies… establish(ing) culture as a global public good which needs to be fully protected and promoted for the benefit of humanity as a whole.” In other words, we can have the best of both worlds, mercantile and cultural interests.
Ethiopian art continues to climb, with high end auction houses, international art fairs and main stream media keeping a keen eye on the slow steady rise of artists growing the industry. Interest in Ethiopian historic and iconic art also continues to peek, while local based international institutions such as Addis Fine Art Gallery, Zoma Museum and myriad artist collectives, like Kiya Tadele led YATREDA, place Ethiopia on the world map. So, what will it take for full support, recognition and/or revitalization of the fine arts, a prestigious part of Ethiopian society? As early as the 1950’s fine art was a priority leading to the establishment of the now named Ale Felege Selam School of Fine Arts. Ethiopia has a plethora of resources and historic homes which can help bridge the 19th and 21st century of Ethiopia through contemporary art, no reason for delay.

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.

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