Friday, 2 December 2011

Ethio-Postcards (2)

Addis: The Future - Addis Ababa (Ala Kheir)

“The finale is open for free improvisations,” writes Jonas Hassen Khemiri, in his short story, “Control Alt. Delete.” That, easily, could be our narrative tagline – having made it to Addis, our schedule freer, it becomes important to sum our work. Thanks to the efforts of Aida, Shimby and Finote at the Modern Art Museum, we have a presentation scheduled on Tuesday 6. Hopefully, what we showcase to the Ethiopian art community will amplify Khemiri’s apt description.

Hopefully, this finale will be open for free improvisations.

Nigerians have a house
We were told by the Consular that the large compound housing the Nigerian Embassy was a gift from Haile Selassie I to Nigeria when Tafawa Balewa conceded to Ethiopia’s desire to host the headquarter of the Organization of African Unity. Entering into the large compound made me feel as though only being Nigerian mattered, and this feeling was affirmed in similar ways by other Nigerian members of the group. This is akin to what was reflected on in yesterday’s post – that desire to invent the kinship one has with a comfort zone in a visited place.
            Our meeting with His Excellency Paul Lolo heightened our interest in being as Nigerian as ever. Nana and Ala’s testimony, despite being non-Nigerians, helped me appreciate the wholesome reaction of the Ambassador to our project and experience. His reaction is impressive, by all standards (whether we consider his gentlemanliness or intelligence), given how unwelcome we felt when we visited our Embassy in Tchad for the first time. And put into a related context, the discouraging story of our predecessors is not entirely banal; there are those amongst our parents who understand that they were not entirely fair to us, and that our quest to rephrase our narrative should be accorded the highest form of indulgent respect.
            He made the important point that our project was much bigger than we could ever realize, whether artistically or societally. He spoke of the ‘mosaic of life’, which is much bigger and larger than anyone. His Excellency raised the following question, which deserves resonance in the multi-faceted world in which we operate: “how do you find your way through such a maze of borders?” His consideration of a ‘maze of borders’ is placed against the backdrop of the blurry form global borders are taking. These borders, in fact, exist – and it is logical to think that our world would always encompass borderlines. Our interest, as His Excellency appeared to understand, is to ensure that an absent visibility is conferred on these existent borders – yes, we see the borders, we see the differentness in laws, hairstyles and cars, but we also see that there are those markers that make us same. Especially in a continent like ours with a history of misrepresentation, under-representation and un-representation.
            At the Consular’s office, Nana made history by being the first vegetarian in the Nigeria House in Ethiopia. And Kemi speculated that the place called ‘Aba’ in China, which was talked about on the TV, could have been named so because of the Igbo presence in China. Then, Ray wondered aloud about the effectiveness of self-immolation, as a protest tool by monks.

With the Nigerian Consular (Photo: Ala Kheir)
On Ethiopian modernity
As is usual with all lectures that engage the mind, the Zemenawei Lecture by Professor Andreas Eshetu (special adviser to the Ethiopian Prime Minister) served the useful purpose of introducing us to the discourse surrounding Ethiopian modernity. The Ras Mekonnen Hall in Addis Ababa University (Sidist Kilo campus) was cramped full with listeners who were mostly standing (unfortunately, someone was carried out after he fell from exhaustion). The hall seemed a port of call for all those who felt intellectualized enough to listen to a lecture by a famed Professor, and who would not mind how his voice was low. Nana and I managed to endure standing until the lecture and accompanying discussions came to a close (Ala looked disinterested the moment he stepped in, only taking some photos to justify his presence; it is doubtful Emeka and Ray spent up to five minutes in the Hall; Jumoke and Kemi looked interested and disinterested at the same instant.)

Professor Eshetu’s strongest remarks in my ears were those that bothered on questioning the evils that are well behind us, and those still among us. In considering the question of modernity – whether or not ‘development’ or ‘contemporary’ are apposite synonyms or appropriate antonyms – there is an intricate significance in Professor Eshetu’s distinction of past and present evils. No one should dismiss the importance of seeing modernity as a question of past and present negativities. Questions as ‘how did a monarchical system work for Ethiopia? Where did it fail?’ ‘is a parliamentary system working?’ will ensure that modernity, as one of the commentators noted, is considered in both economic, social, religious and political terms.

In the 13th Month
Recall that I considered the possibility that we are obliged to discover what Nirvanaian space the (sunny) thirteenth month is carved into. Well, it seems that Ato Hapte Sellassie’s house/office was a terminus that let us into the 13th month. Instructive in this regard is the fact that Ata Hapte Sellassie, now an octogenarian, is the father of Ethiopian tourism. He was Minister for Tourism when the words “13 Months of Sunshine” became a mantra. To be honoured with an invitation from him is a landmark in the story of the Project.
            And while in the 13th Month (a worthy description of his artefact-filled house), he began to propose an exchange between Nigeria and Ethiopia – asking if his company could imprint images that typified Nigerian culture on souvenirs for tourists visiting Ethiopia. His pan-African spirit was infectious; Shimby said he speaks a million languages, which is not hard to believe or imagine.
            Ethiopia would certainly stand out because of the trans-African network we are forming, since we are now friends with Ato Hapte Sallassie – and in retrospect we will have Aida, Shimby and Finote, good people of the Modern Art Museum, to thank.

Emeka with Ato Hapte Sellassie (Photo: Ala Kheir)
Seeing through positive eyes
It was the sex worker that took the photo of two veiled women.

The photo shows the women in barka walking ahead; the sex worker must have taken the photo from behind. And she seems to define her wished life, a life that is veiled, hidden from the bareness of carnality.

Such strong statements are made through the photography of Goitum HableMariam and Terhas Berhe. We attended the opening of their joint exhibition at the National Theater Gallery.

The exhibition, titled “Through Positive Eyes” is a photographic journey of two HIV Positive sex workers in Ethiopia. This might be one of the most formidable attempts by African artists to make a social statement about being HIV positive; for the images tell of an admirable ordinariness that might even be lacking in those who are HIV negative. In speaking to us about the work of the artists, the organizer of the exhibition made reference to the terms ‘wax and gold’, terms that have been used in describing Ethiopian art. The wax, in her thinking, was the superficial fact that the two sex workers were HIV +. But the gold, which shone brighter, was the fact that being HIV+ did not summarize their persons – their normalcy and liveliness was as evident as ever. This is remarkable and must not be dismissed as a sympathetic approach to dealings with carriers of the virus. Not even the fact that the subjects of the images were sex workers should restrain anyone from seeking to record the transcendental ordinariness that is a common denominator of humanity.

This is certainly a good space to mention the indefatigability of our Ethiopian artist friends who are contributing to a good working experience here – Tibebeselassie Tigabu, Mulugeta Daniel, Mululeta Ayene, Samuel Habtab, Goitom Habtemariam, Nahom Tesfayem, Zewdeneh Getachew, Yemane Gebre Medhin and Ateneh Akilu.

Dear friends, here are heartfelt words: Thank you. Do translate them into Amharic.