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May 12, 2021
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What is art’s worth in Ethiopia? – BY TIBEBESELASSIE TIGABU

Homage to Abebe Bekila by Skunder Boghossian

The Reporter Ethiopia


Wealthy patrons and collectors have been the lifeblood of the art world for centuries. For the wealthy art is a passion, but it is also a valuable asset.

 Though there are no auction rooms like the renowned Christie’s of New York City, art galleries are playing their part in satisfying Ethiopian art collectors’ needs, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.

Art intellectuals describe the French artist Paul Cezanne as an iconic figure of the post-impressionist age; an artist who was able to bridge the divide between 19th century impressionism and the early 20th century art movement—Cubism. This type of art form is believed to have been inspired by one of  Cezanne’s late works where a three-dimensional form is represented. In Cubism objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form: instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.

Today Cezanne’s name is larger than most artists for the simplification of naturally-occurring forms to their geometric essentials such treating nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone and other shapes that it takes. As the saying goes, a prophet is not without honor save in his own country initially this artist’s work was not well received among the petty bourgeois of Paris and the art community in general where his first exhibition has to be held in the “Salon des Refusés” — French for “exhibition of the rejects”. His radical artistic endeavor was taken as “dishonoring art” at his time.

Unappreciated in his own time, who would have guessed Cezanne’s artwork would be the most expensive piece ever sold. To-date has fetched the highest price ever paid for an artwork. His master art piece entitled “The Card Players” depicting French peasants playing cards was bought by a Qatari royal family for 250 million dollars (an Ethiopian equivalent of five billion birr) three years ago.

Renowned western media institutions reported that the royal family beat two of the world’s top art dealers to win this masterwork. This phenomenon was dubbed “ridiculous” not for those who are detached from the art sale scene, but for those who are familiar with the art world. The Daily Mail describes the deal in the following words “in a single stroke he sets the highest price ever paid for an artwork and upends the modern market.”

However, the recent auction (last May) price attached to another European painter Pablo Picasso at Christie’s New York auction room has also caused a bit of a stir in the art industry. The cubist-style “Women of Algiers (Version O)” is a 1955 Picasso painting which is part of the series of 15 paintings dubbed the “Women of Algiers”. After a fierce bidding which included phone bidders from around the world, the piece was finally sold for 179 million dollars by an anonymous buyer. The record price also drew attention to the lofty sum that the auction house retained, which is 12 percent of the sales price.

With news of multimillion dollars being spent on notable artworks, one can’t help but wonder how much the Ethiopian art market offers to artworks and artists. When it comes to Ethiopia, the highest price ever paid to an artwork done by an Ethiopian-based artist seems to vary depending on the source of the information.

Quite a sizable number of people in the art community seem to believe that it is the mural of Skunder Bughossian, an Ethiopian painter who lived and worked in the US, and  who holds the record for art sells in Ethiopia at a price of 250 thousand dollars.

This, however, is controversial since other sources indicate another US-based contemporary artist Julie Meheretu, 45, the Ethiopian abstract painter who lives and works in New York. Actually Julie ranks No.5 in the “top ten most expensive women artist,” a list advertised Art-Net, earning the spot when her 2001 work “Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation” sold for 4.6 million dollar at Christie’s in 2013. According to the website, Julie is the only black artist in the select group. Few Ethiopian artists were able to compete in the international art arena.

Artists such as the late Skunder Boghossian, Gebrekirstos Desta and also the living Wosene Worke Korsof, Elias Sime have art pieces priced at more than hundreds of thousands of birr. Skunder Boghossian is the best know African artist, according to art commentators. His permanent collection is featured in world renowned art venues that include: The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris; The Studio Museum in Harlem and the National Museum of African Art, Washington. His formal training at the School of Paris influenced his skill but never touched his heart or imagination. The National Museum of African Art in Washington owns several of his paintings. A few of them are included in the group exhibition ”Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues in the Diaspora,”

Renowned for his Amharic alphabet calligraphy works, Wosene’s masterpieces “color of words”, “Mind of the healer” and “where it all begins” is sold at 75 thousand dollars each at the Gallery of African Art. The price at domestic markets is also not that far. For instance, one of Wosene’s works was sold for 30 thousand dollars a couple of years back at the Ethiopian National Museum.

At the other end of the equation, like many countries in the world, there are struggling artists such as Yemisrach Negash, a street painter around piazza, who sells her art work for only 30 birr. There are also even younger and high profile artists such as Fikru Gebremariam, who sold his art piece for the price of EUR 30 thousand.

For the renowned sculptor and associate professor at Addis Ababa University’s Ale School of Fine Arts and Design, Bekele Mekonnen, the recent art pricing system in Ethiopia is wild at best. According to Bekele in other countries there are standards and regulations when prices are set; but that is not the case in Ethiopia. In other countries many stakeholders involve in the financial valuation of the artwork which includes auction houses, private and corporate collectors, curators, art dealers, gallery owners, experienced consultants and specialized market analysts.

A number of things are taken into consideration when determining the current value of an artwork. These include the portfolio of the artist, the cultural value of the artwork, past and predicted future monetary value of the work, season and the like. Unlike the case in Ethiopia, there is no arbitrary determination of prices, Bekele says. Furthermore, the artist also tried to add value by hiring curators, critics, publishing books, among other things. One thing important in setting the price according to Bekele is the artist’s background: that is their art portfolio.

According to Bekele, governments also regulate the art market through various methods and how the price is determined.  In Ethiopia, such an infrastructure does not exist, he argues. Only a number of galleries exist. There is shortage of critics, art dealers, consultants or market analysts. Generally, institutions which help in setting the right price are non-existent, according to Bekele. “It is arbitrary,” he says.

“The market is not consistent; artists with a similar quality of work, painting style might fetch different prices in the market. A recent graduate might give a price of 200 thousand birr for their work at times on a par with more than what established artists charge for their artwork,” Bekele says.

Since there is no measurement to regulate the price in today’s contemporary scene of Ethiopia, artists decide their own price. In the galleries of Addis, the average price for a piece of art is 20 thousand birr, while it can sometimes go as high as 50 thousand birr. Nevertheless, one might also find an artwork for a price as low as three thousand birr in the same galleries.

In special art venues like the annual Art of Ethiopia art fair, which is held in Sheraton Addis, prices can go as high as 500 thousand birr. Bekele says that artists who sell their artwork with less money in their studios double or triple the price without adding any values in such venues. It is not only with the annual art fair, Bekele says, but the artists add price arbitrarily monthly or annually. Looking at this trend he questions why one artist does add a price without adding value.

“Artists do not try to build themselves and also the market does not do anything to build value of artworks. It all depends on the goodwill of the artist and that is not healthy,” Bekele says. With this irregularity of the market there are international traders who come to Ethiopia to purchase the art with a little money and sell it to the international market. Especially, artists showing their work in such venues like the Gebrekirstos Desta Center sell their work for thousands of dollars, he explains.

Bekele says that in many countries how much one profit from selling one’s artwork is regulated; but in Ethiopian there is no such mechanism. Within these irregularities, one thing Bekele appreciate is the artists. He argues that the artists are benefiting from this and also Ethiopian collectors are growing in number. Even as an artist, Bekele says that he has been paid as much as one million birr for his work; he remembers that one of his paintings was sold for 10 thousand dollars recently to decorate the new U.S. Embassy building in Addis Ababa.

“Nowadays, Ethiopian collectors do not even hesitate to buy millions of birr worth of paintings,” Bekele says.

However, this has not been the case always. In previous times, church painters were paid with food and/or services. This tradition has continued and has impacted even artists such as Maitre-artist Afework Tekle. According to Bekle, Afework Tekle sold one of his paintings at a price of 250 birr to Tadele Bitul (Eng.), an art collector, though it was expensive during that time (imperial time). Starting from a couple of hundreds, the world0-renowned artist Afework gradually saw his artwork increase in value. For instance, his artwork “Mother Ethiopia” was priced at 500 million birr by Afework Tekele.

Selamawit Alene, shareholder of St. George Gallery, says Afework was fixated on this 500 million birr price. She says it was in fact his way of saying he is not willing to sell “Mother Ethiopia”.

St. George Gallery is one of the pioneer galleries in Ethiopia, which was established some 24 years ago. The founder, Saba Alene, had her own label of furniture design that she puts on display and later started putting other artists’ work for display. When the gallery started work, they presented artworks of Zerihun Yetmigeta, which is intertwined with the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox touch. Teshome Bekele, Wosene Korsof, Leulseged Reta, Mezgebu were also some of the artists whose artwork were on display.

The gallery works with a commission, taking 35 percent of the art price. The gallery does not determine the artwork’s price: rather the artist comes up with the price. Though quite a number of artists complain about the strict criteria, Selamawit says that their door is open to artists.

One of the criteria the gallery has is to make sure that the art work is original, not copied. Since they have been in the business for quite sometimes now, they know which style is which, which technique and color usage is unique to the artist. Excluding the permanent collection, the gallery has artworks sold up to 70 thousand birr. Selamawit says that from the feedbacks she is getting from international clients the price is medium. She admits though that there is no standard for prices determination in the Ethiopia art market; except of course bargaining.

According to Selamwit, one of the big artists, Gebrekirstos Desta had a habit of giving away his artworks as a gift; now his works are sold at more than 15 thousand dollars. She says artists who have international exposure command good prices in the market. For instance, she mentions that Afework Tekle’s work is fetching up to 25 thousand dollars at her gallery.

Artists approach them with their artworks and also clients ask for the artist they want and they order. Apart from that, Selamawit herself is a collector with her valuable collection featuring Wosene Korsof, Mezgebu, Teshome Bekele and others.

She bought Wosene Korsof’s art work for a price of 14,000 birr years before, only to realize its price have escalated to 30 thousand dollar a few years down the road. Though the number of Ethiopian art buyers is increasing in number, Selamawit says that it still is not a lucrative business. She says many galleries are actually engaged in other side businesses including restaurants. This might not be entirely true for the galleries such as Makush. This gallery serves Italian-style cuisine apart from the art sells. However, according to recent reports, Makush’s revenue from the gallery is way more than what it makes from the restaurant.

Apart from Makush, the annual festival Art of Ethiopia is also successful in marketing a number of artworks. During this exhibition, however, one face is common—Mulugeta Tesfakiros, CEO of Muller Real Estate and co-owner of Awash Winery SC. He is one of the prominent art collectors in Ethiopian. Even at this year’s edition of the fair, he bought 21 art works. He started collecting 12 years ago and currently owns 400 priceless pieces.

His first collection was Leulseged Reta’s work with 30 thousand birr. Now he has around 30 works of Leulseged.  After sometimes he says that he started exploring Ethiopia’s art scene and now he know who is who in the art. Apart from the invitation to different exhibitions he says a lot of artists actually come with their works. “As much as I can, I want to support Ethiopian art,” Mulugeta says.

All in all, Muller told The Reporter that Bekele Haile, Daniel Taye, Gebrekirstos as well as Leulseged Reta and from the younger generation Yared Oliveli are parts of artists whose works are featured in his collection.

Though the number of art collectors in Ethiopia is increasing, still artists have to work hard to sell their artworks. One of those artists, Seifu Abebe, Ethiopian Visual Art Aassociation Secretary, says it needs a strategy to sell artworks.

Spending more than a decade in the art, he still strives for sponsors. In his recent exhibition entitled “The Return” at Taitu Hotel, out of the 37 pieces he presented he was able to sell only 20 ranging in price from seven to 20 thousand birr. “You just don’t sell your art. Rather it needs promotion, networking and strategy,” Seifu says.

He says that he was lucky in securing that since there are situations where it could be difficult to sell even one painting. “Although a few galleries in town do ok with their foreign clientele, for the most part it is a big deal if they even sell three paintings within a month,” Seifu argues.

The main buyers in the local art market are the diaspora returnees, according to Seifu. It seems that, now-a-days, seeing hotels and houses being decorated with paintings as interior designers consider paintings (artworks) as the main part of their work Artists like Seifu can now hope—hope that they will receive better price for their creativity.


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