The Artistic Paradigm of Leadership and Development, Event Recap

Letting the brush, the voice and the gallery take the stage, the three speakers left the audience in awe.   Munit Mesfin, a mother of three, studied Economics for her undergraduate and then, followed her passion and is now working in the music, culture and arts industry.  She is an artist, a vocalist and a singer who co-produced two albums and the co-owner and Program Manager of her company, Care Events and Communication.  She is also the Music Director for “Yegna”, a radio drama, talk show and music production working to empower girls in Ethiopia.  She also apologetically let us know that she is the English voice on the phone, to lets us know about our phone account balance when depleted. She was the first speaker who reflected on the “Creative Economy and Industry in Ethiopia.”

The creative economy is dynamic sector in the world, which includes: advertising and marketing, architecture, crafts, design, film and photography, IT, publishing, museums and galleries, music, performing and visual arts.  Combining her economics background with her experience and passion in arts and culture, Munit reiterated, “Our cultural sites, traditional diversity and expressions are part of the creative industry and are feasible development options. The cycle of creativity has tangible and intangible effects generating potential revenues from intellectual property rights, trade and services that contribute to the economy.”

Talking about Ethiopia, Munit stated, “Out of the 16 areas of development stipulated in the Growth and Transformation Plan, culture and tourism takes the 14th position.  Even then, the emphasis is more on tourism related services, cultural and natural heritages, eco-tourism parts, folklore and less on creative arts such as artists, festivals, exporting artistic goods and working on their developments.”

Since music is one of Munit’s passions, she focused out the music industry and explained how it has a value chain incorporating the different elements such as song writing, production, distribution, wholesale and retail of sound recordings, management of legal copy rights, finance, promotion and book keeping, and then of course, live performance, festivals and concerts that create another platform for exchange, consumption and more.   Citing available data, she talked about the contributions of the creative industry to the United Kingdom’s revenue, generating 112.5 billion pounds in revenue and employing up to 1.3 million people.  That is about 5% of the country’s GDP.

Ethiopia can build its creative industry to contribute significantly to its economic development. Munit described the problems that hampered the growth of our creative industries and economy as: lack of strong policy and prioritization for the growth of the sector; missed opportunity of education on art from early childhood to higher education; negative mindset on art and artisans; lack of technology and infrastructure; lack of consistency and high standards and the way “Made in Ethiopia” is branded; and lack of collaboration to compete in the global economy.  Though Ethiopia is number one from Africa as having the most number of UNESCO registered cultural and natural sites, this is yet to be translated to its fullest economic contributions.

Leadership is an important factor to solve this issue and contribute greatly to the creative economy.  Leaders who are selfless, excellent communicators, passionate and committed to advocate on the value of culture and the arts, identifying and branding of Ethiopia in a positive light, and leaders who are business minded – who take personal responsibility to create collective energy, researchers and educators are needed to create the economic benefits from the creative industry.  Munit emphasized, “We especially need personal responsibility in delivering excellence, at all levels.  None of us are good at everything but we can all be excellent at something and together we can make great impact.”

Munit closed her presentation with a call to start a creative industry task force for Ethiopia composed of policy makers, funders, and various professionals in order to make collective differences and contribute to the desired development of the country by creating jobs for millions, positively impacting the economy tremendously and also supporting the survival and thriving of our cultural heritages.  A round of applause was accorded to Munit for her thought provoking, well researched and forward looking presentation.

The second speaker, Abezash Tamrat, trained as a photographer at the Savannah College of Art and Design, has been involved in printmaking, photography, and painting committing herself to bettering Ethiopia, with notable humanitarian ventures of raising HIV positive children by auctioning her art works.  As an artist, she never wanted to sell her art work for they were very personal and hence preferred to keep them.  She moved to the USA at the age of seven and in 2003 and came back to her home land and experienced the devastating effects of AIDS in her close relatives and the country at large.

In order to be part of a solution, Abezash used her creativity to reach out to her friends and family in the art community and founded Artists for Charity, to raise fund and establish children’s home in Addis Ababa, for orphaned, HIV-positive children.  She wanted to give those children the same chance at life that she was given. “AFC was one of the first few places to accept children living with HIV in Ethiopia, with the strong belief that through love, support, and access to good health care and treatment, and education, the children would thrive.” Though a mother of two, at present, Aberash has 35 kids to raise in the AFC home, calling herself a mother of many.

With each stroke of brush, artists are encouraged to make a difference by donating their art work for auction to bring hope, education and loving home for orphaned HIV positive children.  Aberash stated, “Art making is not limited to paining, it is persuading the government that they can make a difference in the lives of children – that is an art.  Ten years ago, nobody would believe that a child whose CD4 count had fallen to four, would survive and make it but now a 21 years old girl is abroad studying medicine, another is in higher educational institution studying psychology – that is an art.  I am a mother of two and mothering is a piece of art.  Art is using our creativity in whatever endeavor to bring solution to problems, whether humanitarian, developmental or economic.

Abezash closed her presentation by challenging the audience, “What would ten years from now look like if we love and care for deserted children to be responsible citizens?” The audience was mesmerized by the beauty of art used to curb humanity issues and expressed appreciations with acclamation of joy.

The third speaker, Konjit Seyoum, a freelance conference interpreter, was trained at the School of Interpretation and Translation at the University of Trieste, Italy. In 1996, Konjit opened ASNI Gallery in Addis Ababa, named after her late mother, with the aim to promote contemporary Ethiopian art, focusing on experimentation and supporting young and emerging artists.

Looking around, the cultural institutes were mainly run by international institutes such as Gothe Institute, Alliance Fran?aise, Italian Cultural Institute, hence she wanted to bridge the gap and created ASNI as an independent alternative space that runs with no predefined programs to show the ideal Ethiopia with all its beauty and exotic identity.   Avoiding aid and sponsorship, she uses her money from translation and interpretation to fund the gallery. She has organized shows, talks, workshops, residencies, community works, and children’s activities using art for social change. She has also been promoting food as an art at her gallery, drawing on traditional Ethiopian cuisine. At present, she is doing her Master’s in Fine Arts.

Konjit started as a photographer and paint maker and be part of socially engaged art. She gave herself a chance and kept following her intuition giving herself a space.  She uses food as her medium.  She said, “I prefer to use food is an art medium.  We have paintings, music and different types of art.  However, I prefer to use food as art for it uses all our senses.  We can smell it, touch it, feel the texture, see it and eat it.  I want this art to be part of our being art disappearing within us making us.”

In a recent festival event and conference, called, Crossing Boundaries, with participants from 11 countries including Ethiopia, which brought together various performances, workshops, exhibitions, and conversations, Konjit used her performing arts symbolisms: food and river to provoke thinking of unity.   She used Ethiopian saying “Yewenze lej”, meaning people who share from one river, as a unifying theme to express oneness in spite of differences. The Nile River is shared by many neighboring countries, which is symbolic of one people from one place with no distinction but flowing through countries with no boundary.  She also researched on the common food Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia consume to show on her performance art as an opportunity to think and explore thoughts of pan-Africanism as a unifying art theme.  These three major countries which used to have conflict in the way to use Nile had to sign agreements to use the river equitably.  She found out all the three countries use misir (lentils). The idea was to bring these people together and she asked the event participants to cook together.  Using the symbol of one river, crossing boundaries that limit our thinking, focusing on oneness using food as an art medium had significant impact to stretch beyond imagination.  She said, art has a mysterious capacity to bridge the gap and unify, solve problems and solidify oneness.”

Amazed by her creativity, AWiBers could not stop feeling inspired by the beauty of art in contributing for conflict resolution in leadership.  Just like her name, Konjit showed the audience the beauty of art in creating oneness.

Question and answer

  1. Abezash, when you started, you auctioned your paintings, do you still raise money by auctioning or you also use other means to support the kids?

We hold fund raising events in Washington DC, Los Angeles and New York.  This is how it started off.  Art works are donated by others as well for the auction.  The cause is also supported by Ethiopian diasporas and others who would like to donate for the cause.

2. Art is a risky business, no short-cuts – How do you encourage people to take risk and be in art work?

One of the ways we encourage people is by being a positive role model who advocate for art.  Globalization is consuming us endangering the loss of identity, culture and heritage.  Hence, we need to keep on showing the risk of losing our identity unless we work on it.

People in the art community and art association are to exert a loving force, lobby, and advocate, for this is both urgent and important to survive.  We need to live our truth beyond survival.

Risk is fundamental aspect of life.  Life is risk for you don’t know your end, you don’t know what is going to happen.   The question is how far do you take your risk further to another level?  It is about that voice that we want to do and be.  Knowing the consequences of extinction would prompt us to choose to come to the world with our identity.

3. Munit – You have an event management company.  Art needs to be supported in all levels.  Public relations is an agent creating a platform to give people access to disseminate information better. 

Event, communication, media play great role as we organize press conferences, ensure online presence.  There is no strong media which critically analyze music and writings.  We need to create a collaborative medium to promoting arts.

Konjit said, “I have a different opinion as far as inviting the media people are concerned.  Except for the arts.  Biruk Yeshitila and Emahoy paintings, I never used the mass media people to advertise events.  I prefer a word of mouth as  “The art should speak for itself.”  I am taking a risk and am not doing publicity. I feel that there are so many products polluting the city with loud ads though they claim to be socially responsible.  We need to be choosy for doing our ads.”      What is going to happen when some manufacture a weapon and say they are socially responsible organizations to be a better citizen?

4. Institutions need to be given a chance to guide.  There were times music, sport, art, homemaking were given as subjects in the mainstream education curriculum.  This has to be institutionalized for the creative industry to flourish.  Advocacy is very important as a teacher and as citizens to penetrate but institutionalized arrangement is important to sustain changes.  Otherwise, only selected people who can afford would be able to go to art school.  The broader mass should have access to art education and this has to be a national movement.  Resource allocation and deliberate decisions are needed to promote the art industry. 

As Tihitina, AWiB Board member, led the session to end by acknowledging the three creative artists, as per the quest from the audience, she requested Munit to sing one of her songs.

Without looking deeply into myself
To see my hearts true desires
Without understanding my gifts and my dreams
So much time has passed in my confusion

Hiding myself for fear of what they’d say
Undermining my wants and my wishes
Time in its miracle keeps flying away
How many chances were lost, while I stifled my potential?

Saying if I had done that, if Id said this
If I had gone there, if I had left it alone
Instead of living in a world of regrets
Lets know ourselves and live our truths!

So that our lives may bloom and we succeed
So that we may give light once we are lit
Let’s search ourselves and take pride in our inner wealth
And use the time we are given wisely

So that we may see with our eyes our dreams realized
Our hope giving life and bearing new seeds
Even when the challenges are many, let’s take heart and have faith
And keep moving forward; we only have on life to live!


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