Rebar asks the question: How do artists engage with the space of the museum? This question was on my mind on a return trip to Ethiopia Feb 9 – 22. What does such a question mean in Ethiopia? What does a “museum” mean in Ethiopia? Of course there are countless, countless Ethiopians who do not know there is such a thing as a museum. There are also many who know of the thing, but for whom such a place is irrelevant, and those people include individuals from every class of society, including Ethiopia’s leaders and its educated elite. In fact it is surely the latter who bear much of the responsibility for the sorry state of artistic display and preservation at Ethiopia’s National Museum in Addis Abeba.
The most exciting, interesting, and forward-looking thing happening in Ethiopian contemporary art is the ZOMA Contemporary Art Center (ZCAC), the brain and love-child of curator/anthropologist/artist Meskerem Assegued. 2010 is a particularly important year for ZCAC, as they’ve just inaugurated a permanent home in Addis, and are in the process of building an artist’s residency program and museum space in the tiny village of Harla, between Ethiopia’s eastern cities of Dire Dawa and Harer. The Addis ZCAC is also a residency space – equipped with living quarters for up to two visiting artists, studio space, and a spectacular communal space suitable for small performances or discussions. The residencies are open to artists from all over the world. The built space of Addis ZCAC is itself a kind of giant sculpture, the work of artist Elias Sime (whose solo show at Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2009 was a hit), who has spent the last 9 years conceiving and building it. Using traditional craft techniques and the tukul house form (circular shape; mud and straw walls; bamboo ceiling) and primarily recycled and reclaimed materials, Sime has created a truly magical space. All manner of supernatural occurrences will happen there, along with the making, showing, and discussing of culture by Ethiopian and visiting international artists. A hyena will appear on an interior balcony reciting Ghez poetry. The giant Gota grain container’s lid will rise up and out will float a genie to hover over the courtyard, not granting wishes but making them: May this space inspire. May this location — near an open drainage sewer, near the South African Embassy, near the teletubbies courrugated sheet metal mural, near the European Union Ambassador’s residence; in the center of a country where 80 languages are spoken; in a place rich with social, natural and cultural beauty; in a place impoverished by decades of abusive leaders and third world development politics — may this location, this contemporary art center unique in Africa, unique in the world, foster a new generation of Ethiopian and foreign artists, designers, thinkers, writers, creators and dreamers.