Ethiopia is going through rapid physical, social and economic changes. How important is it to preserve and promote your history and heritage while forging ahead, and in what ways are you achieving this?
Living in Ethiopia the past nine years has been a lesson not only in understanding my birthplace that I now call home but also understanding the global dynamics as it relates to being in a nation that is experiencing a renaissance. Ethiopia is a unique place not only for its historical sites, nor for the fact that it is the birthplace of humanity but because amidst the challenges that we have faced both from internal strife and external provocation, we have been a nation that has overcome many challenges with strength and conviction for a better tomorrow. With this in mind, my main advocacy has been on the importance of culture being part of development not only as a policy but also as a tool that educates, inspires, employs and promotes Ethiopia.
Hence, my conversation stems from the often misrepresentation of our nation through the foreign gaze, the fact that we have been portrayed through an unbalanced lens, one that lacks the complete story and fails to offer the global community with a clear representation of our innovations and resilience as a nation. Ethiopia is a complex country and the same goes for most parts of Africa but what I have seen is the need to portray this through our own perspective. Therefore, my life journey has led me back to my country to not only address the visual misrepresentation but to offer opportunities through training in order to develop talents from Ethiopia that are offering the “other side” of the story.
As one of Ethiopia’s brand ambassadors, you are focused on creating a vibrant art spirit locally, regionally and internationally. Can you enumerate on some of your projects and their impact?
The establishment of Desta For Africa PLC (DFA) in 2010 had specific objectives that were based on the lack of adequate photography training in Addis Ababa. As a nation that has the most UNESCO registered sites in Africa, foreign photographers produce most of the images that reaches the international market of our heritage sites. Hence, I knew early on that education is the key component in creating opportunities for emerging talents to partake in the photography industry. However, it was not only teaching that was important but also providing access for our talents to network with the global market, therefore the establishment of the Addis Foto Fest, being the first and only international photography festival in East Africa, it has played a role in cultural exchange through images. By bringing together photographers, educators, curators, editors and museum directors, the AFF has become an event that engages a global conversation in the development of photography not only in Ethiopia but also through out the continent. In addition, we exhibit sections of our collection in various festivals around the world in places such as New York (Photoville Brooklyn festival), Mali (Bamako Biannual), Senegal (Dakart Biannual), South Africa (Joburg Art Fair 2016) and England (1:54 Art Fair), therefore our global outreach and collaboration promotes the immense talent that is in Africa.
How important are relationships/ alliances for the sustainable growth and stability of Ethiopia’s and Africa’s emerging art world?
The overall sentiment across Africa amongst most cultural workers has been the need to develop continental networks and to strengthen our alliances in order to cultivate solutions for the challenges that we face within our continent. This means that we need to improve our local art market because what I have seen happen too often is that due to lack of adequate support most of our artist relocate to Europe or the west. Most of it has been due to the global art market’s increased interest in contemporary art coming from Africa. Hence, the partnership that needs to be sought is one that develops the local market while also providing self-sustainable access beyond our borders.
What would you like to see happen in Ethiopia and in Africa when it comes to promoting art, monetizing art, and sustaining it within our continent?
Foreign cultural institutions provide a majority of the cultural funding across Africa and the one thing that I have understood is the fact that culture is soft power, in this sense, to develop the cultural industry not only in Ethiopia but across the continent it would require addressing the need for self-sustainable opportunities as opposed to aid. For many projects including our own, the foreign cultural institutions have played a major role early on, however, in the long term it has created a dependency as opposed to a system that strengthens our sector for the growth of the industry. Therefore, this leads back to the need for accountability from our own governments on first recognizing the important role that culture plays in our continent, which requires investment, policy changes and participation. As well as, for our local businesses that the investment in culture plays a role by participating through social accountability engagement. For example, with the large numbers of hotels that have opened up in Ethiopia, it is often disappointing to see in most hotels artwork that has been bought in China, which often does not reflect the culture or heritage of our country. The same can be said for photography, with the amount of multinational corporations doing business in Ethiopia, often product branding is produced overseas with images that lack local market understanding. Hence, the role of culture in all its sectors is an important component across Africa and has made major contributions globally to attracting visitors to our continent. We are the catalyst of evoking curiosity beyond our borders through our images, art, music, fashion, film and stories, while at the same time we are also the ones who are preserving the past and promoting the future.