20th Century Ethiopian Art: An Introduction

Christian Ethiopian painting flourished for hundreds of years, in the churches and monasteries of highland Abyssinia. (1) But at the beginning of this century, it was giving way to a new kind of artistic representation. The forerunners for this new art were the church-trained dissident painters, and other self-taught artists who received some commissions for their work. These artists, along with those who got their art education in Ethiopia and Europe in 1920s and 1930s, brought about a new practice in the visual arts culture in modern Ethiopia. (2) By the 1940s, this new class of painters were being hired by the government and recognized as professionals. And by the 1950s, the number of painters, those coming from abroad with a new artistic style grew steadily. The graduates of the Addis Ababa Fine Art School followed this in the 1960s, resulting in three main artistic movements that remained popular until 1974 when the Ethiopian revolution broke out.

First is the realistic or naturalistic and "na´ve" style used to represent Ethiopian passion and glamour. Like most Ethiopian literature and the music of the time, the subject matter of the paintings was based on a new reality - Nationalism.

Second is abstractionism, Expressionism and Surrealism; the examination of spirituality in the style of the Western avant-garde movement, which, in most instances was an assertion of Ethiopian and African identity through the visual arts.

The Third is an impressionist, expressionist or social-realistic style. Intended to be sentimental and political in nature, it depicted the cluttered shabby streets of the cities, urban scenes and the downtrodden masses.

These three main artistic trends coexisted until the overthrow of the emperor in 1974.

In 1977, when the country mobilized its professionals for a new cause, the newly amended Ethiopian Artists Association (3) organized a show (4) at Addis Ababa City Hall Gallery. It was intended to be the annual exhibition of the Ethiopian Artists Association. It was also to show the solidarity of Ethiopian artists with the "Ethiopia First" slogan of the Derg. There was no indication at the show of a new style or artistic expression per se. The Paintings and Sculptures displayed portrayed basically the same subject matter as before, and were produced by the same artists. The works concentrated more on the famine, the revolution and rural life in a simplistic narrative manner. Soon after, the revolution changed its course and the military government of socialist Ethiopia systematically recruited and trained artists for propaganda and other political purposes. (5) The militants who believed that art would help advance the cause of educating the masses advocated for Socialist Realism, an artistic language that would simplify the complexity of the country and her people. This new artistic style dominated the artistic scene of the country in the 1980s.

Today, the artistic practices of the late 1970s and 1980s seem to have all but disappeared. However, since the new generation of artists are influenced by the country's tumultuous past, doubts linger as to what to do and how to define it. Themes, techniques and subject matter repeat themselves in endless yet lively variation in an attempt to gain approval and recognition. The desire to match the artistic efforts of the past; to make up for the time wasted, is so onerous that many artists sought comfort and reassurance within the arts community. Since 1993, the silence of the Ethiopian Artists Association has forced many young artists to defend their profession on their own.

Artists groups are sprouting up as never before. These groups are not specifically formed to promote one type of art style, approach or artistic philosophy. Instead, they are alliances of artists who have something in common - social problems and conditions that tend to discourage artistic activities. Without sacrificing their individuality, they hope to become more visible as a group in order to approach cultural centers, and institutions for assistance and sponsorship of exhibitions. They also hope to be taken seriously in their attempt to teach the general public about art. Among the many artists group formed in the last seven years, the most visible are the Friendship of Women Artists (FOWA), Point and Dimension groups. Addis International which was one of the first groups to be formed, organized a show of the works of about 40 artists in 1991, but has since curtailed its activities while newcomers like the Double Blue group are becoming increasingly active.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, most works by graduates of the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School reflect the social condition of the country. Whatever its style and technique, it was an art of social commentary. At present, with circumstances worsening, this kind of thematic is making a comeback. The trauma, crisis, spiritual illness, and the painful reality of the country's past and present are subjects of interest to a large number of artists.Members of the artists groups, as well as more established individual artists, are regularly exhibiting in a fashion that is reminiscent of the gregarious artistic activities of Addis Ababa in the 1960s and 1970s. This rejuvenated art scene has taken on an international flavor with the exhibitions of expatriate artists and Ethiopian artists living abroad. A number of new art galleries dedicated to contemporary art, coupled with an enthusiastic group of new art collectors, is once again turning Addis into an important art center.



1) The basic structure of Christian Ethiopian painting and its decorative motifs is presently applied by artists hired by the Tourist Organization, as well as by commercial artists who produce for the tourist and commercial markets. It also serves as an inspiration for formally trained professional artists in creating a more complex contemporary style.

2) See Taye Tadesse, "Short Biographies of Some Ethiopian Artists" Addis Ababa, Kuraz Publishing Agency, 1991.

3) The first Ethiopian artist organization was formed in 1959. The main idea of the Artists Club, as indicated in the brochure published on the occasion of the formation of the club, is to develop the national arts.

4) Ethiopian Artists Association's last exhibition was held in March of 1991 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Victory Day and the 11th International Conference on Ethiopian Studies. The late Girma Kidane wrote the catalogue. The last major group art show before the fall of the imperial regime, was given by seven prominent Ethiopian art instructors and held at the Haile Sellasie I Theater in 1971. Professor Stanislaw Chojnacki wrote the catalogue for the show. The show closed the first chapter of Ethiopian modern art.

5) Most young artists took this opportunity to get scholarships in socialist countries. Many ended up in western countries as refugees and did not return home after they finished their studies. Those who did return, played more of a bureaucratic role rather than an artistic one, and tried to implement socialist oriented art in Ethiopia.

Esseye Medhin, 1990