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Ethiopia’s Oldest Inn Now Art Center

December 27, 2000

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) _ In Ethiopia’s oldest hotel, where foreign correspondents waited out the 1935 Italian invasion of the country then known as Abyssinia, two young men have embarked on an ambitious project to promote modern art in a deeply traditional society.

The effort comes at a time when Ethiopia, Africa’s oldest independent nation lately known for its conflicts and famines, is slowly opening up to the outside, logging on to the Internet, talking on cell phones and exploring new avenues of expression.

The Taitu International Art Center is the result of a chance encounter between Fitsum Zeab Asgedom, a 38-year-old Ethiopian entrepreneur whose family is in the printing business, and Bertrand Lefort, a 24-year-old Frenchman better known as Leo, with a degree in fine arts and a head brimming with ideas.

They met a year ago at the French Cultural Center where Leo was coordinating projects during a stint as a civilian volunteer in fulfillment of his French military service.

``Ethiopian painters have many problems,″ Leo says. ``There are few art materials available locally, and they are very expensive. The painters don’t have slides of their work, there are few catalogues. And then there is the whole question about how to paint _ does it have to look Ethiopian, whatever that is?″

But for Fitsum, who has visions of the center expanding to include a private television and radio station (although the current broadcasting environment is still under strict government control), the main challenge is to get Ethiopians interested in contemporary art.

``If we don’t meet it, we shouldn’t be in the business,″ he says flatly. ``I saw this place as a very good opportunity on all counts _ and I liked the staircase.″

At a government auction of state-owned properties, he was the only bidder on the hotel, built in 1907 by Taitu, wife of Emperor Menelik II, to house official guests visiting Ethiopia’s new capital, Addis Ababa.

For $425,000, he got the three-story building and its original green corrugated iron roof, a vintage upright Steinway piano, several annexes, one of which houses Fitsum’s Daily Monitor newspaper and what was Ethiopia’s first tennis court, now a parking lot.

Evelyn Waugh immortalized what by 1935 had become the Imperial Hotel as the Hotel Liberty in Jacksonburg, capital of the imaginary land of Ismaelia in ``Scoop,″ his 1938 satire on foreign correspondents in Africa who invent stories and pad their expense accounts.

The second-floor hall at the top of the elegant staircase and the attic where the hotel staff lived have been converted into gallery space. The rooms where correspondents banged out their dispatches as the forces of Gen. Pietro Badoglio entered Addis Ababa are being turned into studios and workshops for printmaking and photography.

On Nov. 17, the center was officially launched with a group show of 22 Ethiopian painters and four foreigners. Leo has seven more shows scheduled before the ``season″ ends in August when the long rains begin.

Painting has been practiced in Ethiopia since Christianity took root in the 4th century in the northern town of Axum where monks adorned the walls of the Orthodox churches with icons. The stylized figures with oval faces and round, white eyes outlined in black are synonymous with Ethiopian art, which remained static until the middle of the last century when Emperor Haile Selassie, who spent six years in exile in England during the Italian occupation, agreed to establish a university and an art school.

Historically, sculpture was frowned upon, Leo says, because the church hierarchy saw its three-dimensional forms as being dangerously close to the Divine.

Fistum, Leo and Konjit Seyoum, a young Ethiopian woman who opened the Asni Art Gallery and cultural center several years ago in the house of a 19th-century Ethiopian nobleman, are aware of the challenge in trying to find a public for contemporary Ethiopian art.

``We have to go into the Ethiopian community, rent paintings, offer art classes for children so their parents will get involved,″ Fitsum says.

As in other African capitals, the French, Italian, German and British diplomatic missions have done the lion’s share of promoting contemporary culture in Addis Ababa through film and video festivals, theater productions and art and photo exhibits.

Outside South Africa, there are few art galleries in sub-Saharan Africa. Those that do prosper depend on foreign patrons, usually diplomats or international civil servants.

But as Ethiopia emerges from a feudal system followed by 17 years of hardline dictatorship and civil conflict, followed by another nine years of stops and starts in the move towards democracy and a free market economy, there is a buzz in the rarified air of its capital.

``It’s never been like this before, I’m so excited,″ Konjit says, proudly leading a visitor through an exhibit of works of Skunder Boghossian, one of Ethiopia’s first abstract painters, who has lived and taught in the United States since the mid-1970s.

``There’s an effervescence, now things are starting to explode, and it’s beginning with art,″ adds Denis Gerard, a Frenchman who has worked in economic development in Ethiopia for 25 years.

Merid Tafesse, a 26-year-old with spiky hair and fashionable tiny glasses, scrawled a black charcoal abstract over a white wall of one of Taitu’s smaller exhibit rooms, knowing in advance that his contribution would be painted over at the end of the show.

``The important thing is to get over the tradition. It will take time to show people that art inspires the spirit, that it is global and about personal expression,″ says the 26-year-old graduate of the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts, whose four-year program was this year incorporated into the curriculum of the city’s 50-year-old university.

In one of the school’s dusty classrooms, 25 first-year students _ only two of them women _ crowded together in the semidarkness as Leo conducted his weekly art history class, commenting on a video about ancient Egyptian painting in which bodies are turned forward and the stylized heads remain in profile.

A voice from the back of the room wanted to know whether Egyptians still paint that way. The question made sense because most of the 60 million Ethiopians, if they think about it at all, see art as traditional scenes of round-eyed people forever staring outwards.

But today, says Bekele Makonnen, the school’s 38-year-old director and one of Ethiopia’s confirmed talents, young people want to study art and become artists because it is a way of gaining personal recognition in a society still weighted down by tradition.

``The greatest job is ours,″ he says of his fellow artists. ``We have a chance now. There is a new movement like a renaissance. There are many young talents, and they are deciding to live for their art, and that brings about the change.″

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