Salambo discovering Ethiopia
Now that Meskel and the New Year are over, life is slowly returning to normal in Addis. As part of our “routine” life here, we try to find things to do at weekend in a city where entertainment for non-Amharic speakers can be somewhat limited. A regular outing on a saturday afternoon is to go to Lela’s gallery, a well known contemporary art gallery in the city, ran by Lili Sahle, an Ethiopian lady who spent a great part of her adult life living in Germany. Lili is part of the Ethiopian diaspora who left their country in the mid-1970s when the socialist Derg regime took over from emperor Hailé Sélassié.
A few years ago, she decided to move back to Addis where she got involved in the local art scene, and opened a gallery in her family house. The house is very special to her. During the Derg regime, well-to-do families like hers were able to keep only one house, their other assets were nationalised. Lili’s family decided to keep that one house located on the edge of the city in the Old Airport neighborhood. Set in a lush garden, the one-storey house has a lot of character with all its original 1960s features, such as the solid wood fitted shelving units and furniture.
Going to an art opening at LeLa’s gallery is like visiting a friend in her house. The art is on display in the main living room and smaller side rooms, giving the art show a rather intimate feel. The exhibitions are more of a social gathering where people have a drink and end up spending the afternoon chatting in the garden. After a few year living here, we have become familiar with many of Lili’s (mainly Diaspora) friends and we too go there as much for the art as for the people.
The show which opened last Saturday is by Mezgebu Gera, a young talismanic artist, who followed in the footsteps of his late father, Gera, a leading artist of that discipline in Ethiopia. He trained with his father, but has since developed a more contemporary version of this art form. He describes himself as “building on tradition while searching for new forms of expression within a traditionally circumscribed form.” In the Ethiopian tradition, talismanic art pieces are considered to have magic power, and were often used as healing tools. They have visual similarities with mandalas and calligraphy. Mezgebu’s paintings are extremely colourful and busy, with various shapes in bright colours, interspersed with large-eyed faces reminiscent of Ethiopian religious depictions. There is probably a meaning to each of them, but personally I couldn’t read through them. On a purely esthetic level, I wans’t enthused either, but I am looking at Ethiopian paintings with a European eye.