ART: Painting and the Ethiopian Culture

AWiB is shedding light on ART and its culture in Ethiopia this month, focusing on painting.  Art is a highly diverse range of human activities engaged in creating visual, auditory, or performed artefacts— artworks—that express the author’s imaginative or technical skill and are intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.

Visual arts, which include images or objects in fields like painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, and other visual media, are the oldest documented forms of art.  Painting is one of the oldest art forms.  When societies began crafting tools and making fire, they were also learning to represent the world in pictures.  These pictures were recorded in cave paintings that still exist.  The art of painting evolved over time, through the hieroglyphics of ancient civilizations to the classical and Renaissance paintings that hang in the Louvre today.  The art of painting has taken some radical turns, with modern forms of painting including colour field and action painting.

AWiB has done research and interviewed some of the sophisticated and knowledgeable artists in Ethiopia, going over the background, culture and how far art has come through the years.

Ancient Ethiopian Paintings

Christian Ethiopian paintings flourished for over 1,000 years in the churches and monasteries of highland Axum through to Abyssinia and modern day Ethiopia. The advent of Ethiopian paintings is believed to have begun during the time Christianity first made its presence felt within the Axum Empire in the 4th century AD.  Ethiopia is a country with ancient Christian roots. It possesses a vigorous artistic tradition and is home to hundreds of old churches and monasteries perched at the top of mountains that are hard to access, hidden by lush vegetation, or surrounded by the tranquil waters of one of its lakes.

The Ethiopian Garima Gospels from the 4th to 6th centuries AD contain illuminated manuscripts that predate the oldest known church paintings, which were found in the 11th century AD church of Debre Selam Mikael in the area of the Axum civilization or today’s Tigray region.

Ethiopian paintings in manuscripts, on walls, and on icons are very unique but also have a touch of influence from the simplified Coptic versions of the Byzantine and Late Antique Christian arts.  The simplistic style belies a vivid portrayal of the subject that is mostly religious in nature.  Cartoonish figures with large oval-shaped eyes and bright colours are characteristics of paintings from this time period.

By the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church and its art seem to have influenced Ethiopian paintings.  Despite the influence, the art has managed to stay conservative and retain the majority of its unique styles.  Before the 19th century, churches were fully painted, but non-religious scenes or characters not included.  Soon, church donors and their lives began to be depicted in the paintings.

20th Century Ethiopian Paintings

The beginning of the 20th century brought forth 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 commission for their work.  These artists, along with those who got their art education in Ethiopia and Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, brought about a new practice in the visual arts culture in modern Ethiopia.

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, focusing on the three main artistic trends—nationalism, spirituality and expressionism—that 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 organized a show at the 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.  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 its 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.

Famous Ethiopian Artists

Afewerk Tekle (1932-2012) was the most well-known Ethiopian artist, particularly for his paintings on African and Christian themes as well as his stained glass windows.

Mother Ethiopia (1963)
Mother Ethiopia (1963)
Maskal Flower (1959)
Maskal Flower (1959)
The total liberation of Africa
The total liberation of Africa

Gebre Kristos Desta (1932-1981) was an Ethiopian modern artist.  He was also known as a poet and the father of modern Ethiopian art.  Both his paintings and his poems unleashed waves of controversy.  He died young but during his short life he transformed Ethiopian art and continues to influence today’s generation of artists on many levels.

  1. Gologota (1963)
  2. Unknown title

Desta Hagos (born 1952, Adwa) is one of the pioneer women artists who dedicated her life to art.  Her career as an artist has earned the respect of a number of aspiring painters.  She has had more than 50 solo and group exhibitions as well as numerous honors and recognitions, the most recent of which was the lifetime achievement in art tribute bestowed on her in 2014.  She paints both in oil and watercolors, and is known for her use of vivid colors, painting beautiful scenes of everyday life.  Her painting style is described as realistic to the semi-abstract and abstract.  She is now a full time artist dedicated to her profession but has also been known to work in the public relations field serving the Ethiopian Tourist Trading enterprise as the head of the department.  Desta has not only made her mark on the Ethiopian art scene but has also given validity to millions of girls who dream of becoming “somebody” in the field one day.

  1. Unknown title
  2. Defenders

Julie Mehretu (born 1970, Addis Ababa) is an artist best known for her densely layered abstract paintings and prints.  Her large-scale paintings that take the abstract energy, topography and sensibility of global urban landscapes as a source of inspiration make her stand out.

  1. Excerpt {Riot} (2003)
  2. Enclosed Resurgence (2001)

Art School in Ethiopia

The concept of modernizing Ethiopian art education began during the second part of the 19th century. This was a period that saw the beginnings of unification, military reform, the birth of fairly well-developed literary Amharic, and the establishment of schools.  As the foundations of modern educational institutions moved—in less than a century—from north Ethiopia to Addis Ababa, so did its artistic foundations.

Around 1887 the church trained artists; self-taught artists from all around the nation were lured to Entoto.  Atse Menelik decided to send Afework Gebreyesus to study art in Europe.  In less than a quarter of a century, the art modernization movement shifted in part from its center in Entoto, where it all began, to its primary center in Addis Ababa’s Arat Kilo.  In the 1940s, the modern art movement began to bloom first with figures like Abebe Wolde Giorgis, Agegnehu Engeda and Zerihun Dominique, and moving on to the parliament studio, the Kine Tibebe School and the Prince Shale Selassie School.  It finally reached its peak in 1959 at the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts.  Ale Felege was the director until he was forced to resign in 1974.  Presently, the school is affiliated with Addis Ababa University under its new name, Addis Ababa University School of Fine Arts and Design.

Ale Felege Selam was born in Selale, Fitch in 1924 and moved to Addis Ababa in his childhood.  Graduating from technical school in the capital, he worked in a garage.  A scholarship from the emperor allowed him to study engineering abroad.  But engineering aside, in 1954 Ale received his B.A. in Fine Arts from the Institute of Art, Chicago, which was known as one of the most prominent art colleges in the United States.  Following a trip to Europe, he returned home and joined the Ministry of Education and Fine Arts.

In public places, Ale’s exhibited paintings include those at the Trinity Cathedral, St. Mary in Addis Ababa, and at Kulubi Gabriel Church in Harerge.  Books have been illustrated by him, postage stamps, portraits and flyers designed.  Countless commissioned works created, Ale is also interested in landscape and portrait painting.  Images of thoughtful and meditative subjects are displayed in his paintings with flat, dark backgrounds—a powerful combination.

Why Teach Art in School?

A person with an artistic talent may not require a diploma or a degree to make art.  However, receiving education from an art school will provide experts’ instructions.  People with experience and knowledge can help provide useful information artists need, saving years of learning about art, specific skills, and handling confusion and self-doubt that may be felt sorting the path on their own.  Art education is a perfect opportunity for artists to explore various styles and techniques under the guidance of a trained mentor.

As networking is a must for an artist, art school is a great way to find like-minded people.  It is possible to have network without attending school, but it is difficult.  Art schools organize several events and shows that create opportunities for students to display their work to the public.  In addition, art schools offer placement and counselling services to students in their fields.

Women Artists in Ethiopia

There are few women artists who are successful in their profession all over the world and this is also true for Ethiopian women artists.Successful women artists are dedicated to art, have a strong self-esteem, confidence in their work, a strong support system from family (especially from their spouses) and the art community.  Women painters tend to bring out the feminine side of the world more eloquently as they are intuitive and more connected with their feelings.

Even though a good number of women join art school and graduate, very few continue with the profession, the most common reason being burdened with domestic work and occupied with children.  It takes a strong time-management skill to be in the studio making artwork, meet people and promote the work.  As networking plays an important role for an artist to get several opportunities, it requires active, continuous participation in several events.  Women are expected (more than men) to prioritize the wellbeing of their families and creating that balance between family and work responsibility becomes harder, especially once they have their own family and start raising kids.  It is most difficult if they lack a strong support system from family and their spouse.  Women artists are expected to put in a little bit more effort than men.  The sexism remarks women face that comes in different forms is spiteful and everlasting, playing a role in discouraging women to pursue their dreams.

Another major obstacle facing women in the art world is self-doubt.  In an environment where many people visit one’s work and give feedback about each work, it’s very important to have a strong self-esteem to handle negative and unconstructive feedback.  Women struggle with handling critiques.  Some people might take rejection as a trap and not a motivator.

The art school in Addis Ababa by itself discourages potential artists from joining the school because of its long list of requirements.  Some students might not fulfil it, missing the opportunity to learn more about art.  During this process they tend to lose interest or think they are not good enough to become artists.  Art is a life-long process; an artist grows more from experience not from degree-based work, say some of the prominent artists we have interviewed.

The absence of women-to-women support is also another problem women artists face.  There are very few women who support and guide new women artists and share their experience.  There are two known associations that support the arts and women artists in Ethiopia: Ethiopian Visual Arts Society and National Association of Women Artists (NAWA) respectively.  The purpose of their establishments is to help and support the artists.  Both associations have organized several exhibitions.  The NAWA, however, has received several complaints not being active and helpful to women artists.  One of their requirements being a holder of a BA degree from government universities made it harder for some women who have artistic capacity but no higher educational background to pursue their creativity.

Social Acceptance

It’s noticeable that there is a positive change from the public and the government attitude regarding the art culture.  The new reform brought light and freedom to the industry.  During the previous government structure, a photographer was required to have a permit to take any pictures; however, nowadays artists have more freedom to practice and show their work.

The current Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has taken an interest in the country’s growing artwork.  He visited Ale School of Fine Arts and Design at AAU—the first head of state to do so.  He also has several paintings and art works in the palace and at the office.  He is still working with various artists on three, big projects that focus on beautifying Addis Ababa by combining nature and technology.

Sheraton Addis, a 5 star hotel in the capital, has been the leading private sector that organizes an exhibition once or twice a year to showcase artwork and print out the fine art work.

Painting is not popular in Ethiopian society even though the history is extensive.  The acceptance level is overdue compared to the globe.  Artists still struggle to survive on painting alone, forced to get another job in order to make ends meet.  This makes the art suffer as it needs undivided attention.  When it comes to women artists in Ethiopia, there is even more struggle to balance work with other aspects of life.

The culture of appreciation is somehow improving, particularly in the urban areas compared to previous times, but we still need to promote the idea and culture.

Some Functional Galleries in Addis Ababa

  1. Addis Ababa Art Studio
  2. Addis Fine Art
  3. Alem Gallery
  4. Alliance Ethio-Francaise (occasionally held shows)
  5. Gebre Kirstos Desta Modern Art Center
  6. Goethe Institute (occasionally held shows)
  7. Guramayle Art Center
  8. Italian Cultural Institute (occasionally held shows)
  9. Makush Art Gallery
  10. Sheba’s Art Gallery
  11. George Art Center
  12. Sheraton Addis Art of Ethiopia (annually held)
  13. Zoma Contemporary Art Center

Challenges of ART culture

There is a general lack of understanding of art.  The problem faced by artists is the fact that art is not taken seriously as a profession and the wider population does not understand the meaning and value of creativity.  People usually visit galleries either to show their support to the artists or to pass some time with their friends.  This shows that most people do not have a strong awareness about painting.

Lack of permanent galleries and museums to showcase artwork is the major challenge the art in Ethiopia currently faces.  There are very few and small venues where artists put their work for people to visit.  The absence of that permanent space discourages artists from producing new work; as a result many of them store their work at home, away from public eyes and potential collectors.

Art related materials such as paper, ink, paint and even brushes are treated and considered as a luxury item and is taxed highly, which increases the price and availability.  Artists that do not have the luxury of relatives abroad who can bring those materials are forced to purchase these items for higher prices, some materials not even be good quality.  Most locals consider the price of a painting expensive and are hesitant to spend that much money for a single art piece.  However, people with exposure to international artworks consider Ethiopian prices very affordable.

The art market consists of fake art works.  This is because the art infrastructure is weak and there is no official body responsible in documenting the work of different artists.  Lack of interest to sponsor an art show from private sectors is another challenge.  Unlike music concerts and other shows, painting exhibitions don’t get that much sponsorship to showcase the work, making it harder for the artists to produce more work. 

Our interviewees’ recommendations and suggestions:

It’s necessary to revise the current education curriculum and adapt new methodologies and trends.  The curriculums of both primary and high schools need to include strong art classes in their plans so that students will have knowledge and awareness about art.  The programs will also single out those students who have special interest in art.  This in general will help develop people who understand and value artwork.

The government has to keep its promise on providing a large gallery space in the city for artists to showcase their work.  In addition, reducing the amount of tax put on art-related materials would help the struggling artists.

Associations that have been created to help and support artists—especially women artists— should focus on the real problems faced and work toward eliminating those obstacles.  The associations should look over the membership requirements and make adjustments.

In terms of galleries, it’s very important to establish several venues where different artists could place their work for people to come and see throughout the year.  In addition, the government should fund and organize several programs and exhibitions where a group of artists show their work.

There must be more shows featuring only women artists; it would provide a chance to see these artists’ work in another context.  It is important to have an equal platform to express and exhibit women’s artistic voices and visions.  The society as a whole benefits when the voices, talents, and artistic expressions of half of the society are being recognized, promoted, and equally exposed.

With social media taking over the world and attention of the new generation, artists should familiarize themselves with these tools, become comfortable with self-promotion, and creating their own opportunities to take the greater advantage technology offers.

Why Art?

Art is a way people reveal their inner thoughts and feelings which cannot be conveyed in other ways.  Creating art requires full attention from both body and mind, making artists look inward and reflect.  Artists use it as a medium to communicate their ideas and share information with other people.

While art may not always and immediately solve problems, it definitely shines a light to their existence, drawing attention and being instrumental in solutions.  For instance, an artist can show the pain of a rape victim.  Art helps show culture, beliefs and values.  It helps to preserve the history of a society in an appealing way, passing information from one generation to another.

In a poverty-stricken country, where art is considered a luxury, AWiB boldly advocates for art because the organization strongly believes art contributes to enhancing the image of Ethiopia.

The global economy is quickly shifting from a manufacturing-based economy to innovative, which makes investing in art one way of supporting the development that our country is moving toward.  Tourism industry is one of the major conducts that brings foreign currency, and art plays a huge role if managed well.

Art can show the lives of people, their celebrations, the struggles they face, the rich cultures and places.  Through art exhibitions artists can communicate with the society, raising issues such as peace and gender equality, or focusing on the youth; art makes a message more appealing.  It encourages people to focus on the creative part of the world.  An artist can transform or recycle scrap materials and make exquisite artwork to be displayed in a gallery, astonishing people.  Galleries can be sources of employment and recreation centers for the community; therapy for some people.  Everybody interprets artwork in their own way, seeing life from different perspectives.

Women artists must work on themselves by being part of associations like AWiB.  They must understand that like any other career, it takes some time to build a name, be recognized and successful.  AWiB, through HER networking platforms, opens multiple opportunities and provides programs to enhance self-awareness and self-confidence.  AWiB believes women can connect, grow and emerge together as a powerful tribe changing the dynamics of art greatly in the coming years.


Elizabeth Habtewold – Artist and documentary producer
Meron Ermias – Artist
Tesfa Solomon – Artist and art teacher
Konjit Seyoum – Artist, curator, gallerist

Image sources: 


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