Salambo discovering Ethiopia
One of the big events in the social calendar in Addis is the Sheraton annual contemporary art exhibition, Art of Ethiopia, which opened last night. Held over a period of four days, it is an opportunity for Ethiopian artists, young or more established, to display and sell their work. Most of the known artists are represented alongside younger graduates from the School of Fine Arts of Addis Ababa. In terms of art, I thought there was no real surprise as I had seen many of the paintings before. Furthermore, the display was such that the best pieces were burried under an overwhelming quantity of rather average work.
The surprise though was the lavish buffet organised and sponsored by the Sheraton hotel. I didn’t expect the event to be given such importance. Hot and cold food from all corners of the world, flowing red and white wine and beer, sophisticated deserts in individual portions prepared by the (well known in Addis) Sheraton patisserie, were served by an army of waiters and waitresses running around to please the guests. The art opening is by invitation only but everybody who is foreign in Addis does get one, which is understandable as they would be the main art buyers in the city. They are also regular customers at the glitzy Sheraton, one of the newest and most westernized hotels in the city and a bit of an institution. As a matter of fact, it belongs to Mohammed Al-Amoudi, the prominent Saudi/Ethiopian businessman and richest man in Ethiopia, who has interests in large-scale farming as well as construction, oil, gold mining and manufacturing through his company MIDROC.
Ethiopia has had a long tradition of fine arts, painting in particular, with many Ethiopian artists having reached world fame in the past. One of the most famous one and a reference to all younger artists today, is Afewerk Tekle, the UK-educated painter who died earlier this year at the age of 80. Part of Afewerk’s legacy is the decoration of St George’s cathedral, one of the most important churches in Addis, as well as the monumental stained glass window he made for the African Hall, the seat of the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Addis. Other great names are Gebre Kristos Desta, a contemporary of Afewerk who gave his name to an art centre in the capital, and Paris-trained Skunder (Alex) Boghossian, who later on worked in the US. These three artists of the same generation were trained abroad but came back to Ethiopia at some point of their respective careers. They also taught at the School of Fine Art of Addis Abeba, a highly-respected institution in the city, where most Ethiopian artists end up teaching once they have built a name for themselves. The Sheraton hotel also supports the School of Fine Arts by donating the 10% commission it gets on all art sales at the Art of Ethiopia annual show.