The connection between artists and government has existed since the formal establishment of the state. Just as Roman emperors had their faces engraved in coins and erected statues around cities, or the Medici patronized Leonardo da Vinci and Cold War politics drove governments to devote time and resources to creating propaganda pieces art and politics have been inseparable.
States and powerful individuals have used art as propaganda, an instrument of control over people and dominant narratives of the time and place. And artists have not been passive actors; they have and continue to use art to question and comment on the status quo, to protest and actively dissent against power.
The twentieth century was a period where political art thrived. Communist states sponsored artists while the American government did the same to discount the narrative that capitalism did not care for aesthetics. Artists themselves formed groups around certain ideologies and used their art to fight or support the status quo.
Songs and poetry have a long tradition of being used to comment on the monarchy and the ruling class in Ethiopia. Satire and metaphor are built into the Ethiopian literary esthetics. Artistic expressions during the Derg era were famously weaponized and censored. Artists were forced to change subject matters or contexts, distorted to transmit specific state-sponsored messages. Artists were exiled or jailed.
The fall of Derg was also followed by artworks that echoed the change of national narrative. In the early era of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) art was focused on music, theater, and literature, relegating visual arts to the backbench.
“Do we want Derg era art that follows specific narrations of the government? Who’s making these choices? Is it the artists or is it coming from other bodies?” asks Mifta Zeleke, curator and owner of Guramayne Art Center.
Monday afternoons at Guramayne hosted artists of various disciplines for discussions. These conversations were inclined to commentary on the socio-economic conditions of the country and the political chaos leading up to the reforms in early 2018. Manifesto, an exhibition that took place at Guramayne in October of 2018 was one of the first political commentary pieces following the ongoing reform. Behailu Bezabih’s Phoenix at the Modern art Museum highlighted the destruction protests on the fringe of Addis Ababa and Oromia region had caused. Both these exhibitions were cautious to congratulate Ethiopia’s entry into an era of democracy, reminding us decades of marginalization and violence will not be healed overnight.
The crackdown on freedom of expression limited commentary or protest through art. Commercialization forced artists to move towards visually pleasing art devoid of ideas. Beauty became the essence of art. If there was a message it was a call for community, love, and peace. Deeper investigations were rarely offered.
Artists like Mulugeta Gebrekidan, Mihret Kebede and the Netsa Art Village collective, Bekele Mekonnen, Behailu Bezabih, and several others along with excellent curators like Konjit Seyoum and Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis (PhD) have made notable splashes in Ethiopian political art.
Artwork in response to changing city infrastructure, the demolishing of old homes and destruction of neighborhoods and gentrification have been covered by Eyob Kitaba, Addis Gezahegn, Michael Tsegaye, Helen Zeru to name just a few.
Netsa Art Village’s Wax and Gold is especially memorable for brave and interactive performances. Nesta was of course pressured by the city administration to close down in 2015 after 7 years of resistance and community activism. But has this political openness of the past a year and half months been sufficiently reflected in the arts?
Many artists believe it’s too early to tell. Poet and artist Mihret Kebede believes what is lacking is the platform. “Artists are doing the work but they aren’t showing it. There is an interest in the market. There is the interest of galleries. How are they supposed to eat?” she asks.
“There is a need for something critical,” says Mifta. “The traditional trend has to break.”
Sheraton Hotel’s Art of Ethiopia hosted 59 artists’ works in 2019 (only nine of whom were female), showcasing younger artists. Art of Ethiopia is one of the most accessible events in the city but the diversity of content was lacking. Without utilizing the space for free expression recent political changes offered, the exhibition showed unimaginative landscapes and romanticizing history, the objectification and eroticization of female bodies and a focus on esthetics without regard for content.
“Politics is on all of our minds but it’s not reflected enough in the art,” says performance artist Helen Zeru. She cites how platforms that were created for open discourse get shut down or get co-opted by nationalism, such as the poetic jazz evenings.
Dariwos Hailemichael and Kirubel Melke cite self-censorship as an issue in showing a completed work. They acknowledge there is a sense of freedom after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power however real change has yet to be seen. The self-censorship artists had to endure to shelter themselves from official inquiry or imprisonment is no longer necessary.
“I’m deeply interested in politics in my work. It’s all around me. I can’t avoid it. But everything is so fragmented right now and it’s difficult to focus on a specific issue,” says Kirubel.
Dariwos, on the other hand, is experiencing a kind of fatigue. “I’m no longer interested in depicting it. It’s very frustrating,” he explains. That perception certainly mirrors most people’s feelings towards politics at this moment.
These cite the lack of resources for artists. What they have observed in the past year is the government’s inclination to utilize visual arts to engage the public’s interest but the artists are wary of this. The Unity Museum can serve as an example of how state interest can entice artists. There is fear their work might be used to push certain agendas.
Propaganda art has a bad reputation but it has also produced critically relevant artworks throughout the world. However, this can only be tolerated when there is also space for open and critical engagement that allows several sides of an argument to be publicly discussed and challenged. It is difficult to say how the political winds might shift in this country but artists must use the freedoms that have been made available to begin conversations with society and ask the questions many might still fear to raise.