Mulugeta Tafesse in conversation: The loss of the Ethiopian cultural consumer
Addis Rumble contributor Sylvie Fanta met Ethiopian artist Mulugeta Tafesse on a sunny afternoon in the arty town of Antwerp, Belgium, where he has been living and working for the past 17 years. Mulugeta had just returned from Spain, where he defended his PhD thesis: “Headways in the art of Mimesis: an inquiry into the mimetic art repertoire of East Africa”. Mulugeta is particularly interested in Ethiopian cultural historicity and contemporary socio-political reality of this African region. Sylvie asked him about his work, aesthetics and the current African and Ethiopian art scene.
Could you tell us a bit about how you came into art and how you reached the level you are at now?
I grew up in a neighbourhood called “Meskel Adebabay” in the centre of Addis Ababa. I went to Asfa Wossen Comprehensive Secondary School and chose there to follow a technical vocation. I passed the workshop (metal, wood, electricity and technical drawing) but not with satisfactory scores. At the same time, though, I’d recompensed myself better in the academy classes. This dire situation made me realise how my neighbourhood friends had been practicing drawing to pass the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School’s entrance exam through. So in the summer of 75’ I went to the Art School with them, and decided to apply. The first year, I passed the winter exam with modest drawing talents. I was not good at drawing then nor was I fully prepared. My talent probably didn’t emerge until I was in the 2nd or 3rd year in the art school.
Even as a student, I was always torn between the fine art practices and theories. Our art history and aesthetics lecturer, the prominent art historian, Seyoum Wolde encouraged me to continue for both my theoretical and practical efforts. I received a prize in painting that led me to be hired in the Fine Arts School of Addis Ababa through 1981-82. A year later, I was granted a scholarship to Bulgaria. After 10 years in Bulgaria, I applied for and entered the post grad program at the NHISK (National Higher Institute for Fine Arts), then sharing the same compound with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp with the help from a colleague. And that’s where I live and work now.
You studied in the art school during the communist Ethiopian Derg regime. Were there any guidelines on a “Marxist” aesthetics students had to follow?
No. Not really. At least not in the curriculum that I know of. We were quite free to do what we wanted. Of course, everybody had to participate somehow in the revolution, and we had to create slogans and posters for the regime according to their wishes, but that was about it. The painting section was a newly opened section and had some kind of free spirit in it; like an open yielded zeal to an art disciple. The Derg period was a very traumatic time, as we saw a lot of our people being killed or incarcerated, especially the youth. By a stroke of luck, I was into arts, and did not get into politics. This has to do, perhaps, with the school ground and the politically less active suburban downtown I was living in. Seyoum Wolde, though a Marxist himself, was a very enlightened teacher whom we cherished and he concocted the intellectual merits in us. He protected us as much as he could from the fiercely harsh period of socio political turmoil. He inspired and pushed us to explore entirely new terrains and free ideas for our graduation work. It was actually the first time in the revolution’s history that art students presented their “free works” in their graduation projects at the art school. There were also powerful works that exposed the feudal system, the poor urban neighbourhoods, and some small but positive valuable fascinations. There were also few young artists who were recycling communist props – but they were forced to do that.
We were just like other societies, overextended by differences. We were not free of social burdens. Some times the whole school would be closed, ordered to do political propaganda. The school has paid a heavy price: creating and promulgating art for a revolution that it didn’t believe in. There were no different scenario elsewhere – all education institutions were subjected to pressure by the Soviet inspired dictatorship.
Could you tell us about your current work, the themes that inspire you and the goals of your paintings?
I’m kind of focused on mainstream painting now, but I’m also struggling to do my own thing. I think I do have a special background, as I’m one of the few who followed different schools of Art: the Ethiopian, the Bulgarian, the Belgian and the Spanish. I’m struggling to hold on to the things that touch me, like for an instance the anonymous individual do. I try to show my attitude to this derelict or overlooked figure, and freeze it into an “aesthetic becoming”, seize it into painting. It’s always a fight because I don’t want to follow any given realistic school. I would say I’m more an expressive or idealist painter – who aims to create newer superficies. I show, in a different way, people and their habitats: we all know human figures, and human figures acting in front of buildings, riveted and held on by their own inventions, we also know those particular and tough situations that these figures are pulled into.
Afework Tekle, Gebrekristos Desta and Skunder Boghossian are often seen as the fathers of Ethiopian Modern Art. Could you tell us some more about their influences and on how you relate to their work?
Yes, the three of them were the pioneer modernists in Ethiopia, and also opened Ethiopian art to a wider audience. Skunder Boghossian, for instance, was the first African artist who had his work purchased by the MOMA, in New York, and by the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. But for me, our modern art is still not distinctive from other African modernists, like those in Sudan or Senegal, for example, in spite of our long visual art history. We were not the only African country to have a strong art school. In Sudan the first art school opened around 1900, and in Uganda it was in the 1940s. Both countries have very interesting and strong modern art movements. You know, I’ve grown quite critical about the art scene in Ethiopia, and I have to admit that the Ethiopian public disappoints me somehow. It’s as if it has lost appreciation of art. The public interest for art is too small for a country like Ethiopia that has an extremely vibrant history and rich artistic and cultural patrimony.
Why do you think the Ethiopian public has lost its interest in/appreciation of art? And how can the interest be triggered again?
Probably, because there exist a very few organised artistic events in Ethiopian major cities and towns. There are limited active cultural institutions that organise exhibitions, not to mention, the absence of powerful and well-financed art centres and museums that run artistic programs many times through out the year. I don’t know exactly how, but the problem should be studied in depth by private and public bodies and there of, later, we can speak about how could the Ethiopian public interest in liking art be awakened, triggered or increased. If I have to speculate, through education like everywhere else, the sense of pride of the Ethiopian art public could be restored, as it certainly likes to embrace art. There must be opened, I think art clubs or art studios – amateur art activities and the likes – which can educate the public to appreciate art. The public, then in turn I believe, massively will come back to appreciation and understanding of the whole issue of visual art culture – art and knowledge production.
Modern art history has been highly dominated by the Western art history, but a new generation of African artists are on the rise. Do you think the name “contemporary African artist” is relevant?
Well for me, the expression “contemporary art” is just a tag, a mere label, to pass whatever seclusions there exist. I’m always very careful not to use this work excessively. If I use it, I don’t stress its oneness, but its paired twoness. Along the “Modern” parenthesising it always as “Contemporary/Modern” is then the just attribute. We see these contemporary artistic phenomena especially in the African plastic art context. And it’s even more confusing when not few African curators and artists pick this ‘contemporary’ phrase without any worry. We are just artists who live in the present and interpret the world we know. Duchamp opened the path to modern art, (by extension, to post modern art) and Breton and all the surrealists made objects and wrote texts that became the new art. There are also African (contemporary) artists following this conceptual path, but I’m personally not very keen about it. My concern when inspecting an artwork is under what pretext it was developed, how truly it is evolving, and how original it is. I am constantly careful about using the term “contemporary”!
I think we need an “African Renaissance” in our continent. We need to trace back into our own history before we jump into other’s wagons. Debates and discussions must be made before adopting a new art style or trend from somewhere. I’m of the opinion, that self-esteem is extremely important in building worthy cultural productions.
How do you feel about the African label many artists from the continent met?
It is the same. I prefer to look at facts on the ground instead, as which individuals and sections have created and are dealing with it. The names of authors of novelties, what have you innovations, interest me more than the origin of those artists or creators of this or that living trend. As one well-known Ethiopian artist once has supposed, “The ‘African’ label is too limiting” to do his work internationally (…). I also think these adjectival and adverbial clauses slay un/intentionally your work, mystify the task of your job not to stand along with your matches in the world.
All photos are courtesy of the artist.
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