Salambo discovering Ethiopia
As I am getting to know Addis and its people better, I was struck by how dynamic and entrepreneurial Ethiopian women are. Some of the most successful medium size niche businesses in the capital are run by women; women who at some point of their life courageously took the risk to venture into something new.
Selamawit and Saba Alene are the two sisters running St George’s gallery, probably the most prestigious gallery of Ethiopian art and antique furniture in the country. Their gallery has become even more of an institution since Bill Clinton visited it a few years ago. The Alene sisters started their business against all odds in the early 1990s. At the time, Ethiopia was coming out of more than fifteen difficult years under the Socialist Derg regime, which pushed a whole generation to emigrate to the US and Europe in search of a better life. Fresh out of college, the two sisters wanted to follow their passion for antique furniture and art, which was still considered as superfluous then. “People viewed paintings and decorative pieces as frivolous objects they didn’t need,” said Selamawit. They started anyway by restoring old furniture pieces which sold well, and a few years later they developed their own line based on traditional Ethiopian style. Today, their line of furniture has become very popular, even more so since the recent restriction on sales of antique furniture to protect Ethiopia’s heritage. Last year, they went a step further by opening their first international gallery in the US to meet the increasing demand from customers there. Saba is currently based there to personally run the new gallery while Selamawit stays in Addis.
Their Addis gallery, set in an old 1930s house near the Sheraton hotel, is a very pleasant place which feels more like a home than a store. Each room is beautifully arranged with distinctive furniture and colourful walls covered with paintings from young Ethiopian artists as well as more traditional art and artefacts. I regularly visit it, having from time to time coffee with Selamawit who is becoming a friend of mine; we recently discovered that our respective daughters are in the same class at the French Lycée and are also becoming friends. She told me that they are now looking for a second location to exhibit contemporary art but finding a place in Addis with ample wall space is proving extremely difficult. All the old houses and villas are being demolished at a fast pace to make way for non descript high-rise glass and concrete buildings.