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  • Harar: Journey to Ethiopia's holy Islamic walled city

    Harar: Journey to Ethiopia's holy Islamic walled city

    “Faranjo! faranjo!” is the repeated shout in the backstreets of Harar, in the nearby hill villages and from the depths of the camel market. The word means quite simply “foreigner” – essentially, you’ve been spotted, usually by excited children. Otherwise Harar Jugol, a Unesco World Heritage city – said to be Islam’s fourth holiest city on account of 82 mosques – that was once a prosperous, independent kingdom, lives a strangely insular existence. This fortified desert city was built between 13th and 16th centuries and is also home to 102 shrines and townhouses that reveal exceptional interior design. During the sizzling afternoon heat, its male inhabitants seemingly disappear; I soon gather it is the khat habit that keeps them indoors in a beatific daze.

    This staunchly Muslim enclave in the far east of Ethiopia, a country renowned for its Orthodox Christian beliefs, was founded in the 10th century and is one of the oldest Islamic cities in East Africa. In spite of the proliferation of mosques, the muezzin are discreet, and only the occasional dome and the main Jami mosque serve to remind of its cultural stature.

    Meanwhile, the spaghetti-like maze of lanes and alleyways of the walled medieval town teem with industrious women, gossiping, bartering at the sprawling street market, buying grain at the teff mill to make spongey injera flatbread, choosing colourful fabrics or stocking up on aromatic spices. All are dressed in extravagant hues, although the flowing styles differ wildly according to each ethnic group: Oromo, Argobba, Somali or Adares. A few rare men are bent over treadle sewing machines on Makina Girgir street – makina being inherited from the short-lived Italian colonisation of the 1930s, and girgir from the whirring of the tailors’ antiquated Singers.

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    The nightly hyena feed (Shutterstock / Sarine Arslanian)


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  • Handicraft: vanishing traditional skill

    Handicraft: vanishing traditional skill

    Handicraft has been a traditional pastime for Ethiopian mothers for many years. But, it is much more than a hobby, many claim. So much so that the art of the craftsmanship has been passed on from generation to generation as a household value. Nevertheless, with loss of interest in the younger generation and the increasing commercialization of the handcrafted goods, the art seems to be leaving the households and is going out to the mainstream business world, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.


    Decades ago, a unique trend in the urban interior designing in Ethiopia was the unusual presence of a kitchen cabinet in a middle of the living room, which Ethiopians affectionately call a buffet. The kitchen cabinet was not the only thing that served its decorative purpose in an Ethiopian living room. In fact, a range of kitchenware that includes exotic looking china and silverware are prominent members of an Ethiopian household.


    Culturally, Ethiopians hardly employ the use of a ceramic dining plate or silverware. To the contrary, the most traditional food in Ethiopia is consumed by hand. So, what is an actual kitchenware for the rest of the world was an exotic decorative item in Ethiopia and its place is in the prime room of the house— the living room.            

    This trend of a living room buffet is becoming outdated these days; the living quarter in Addis Ababa and other urban centers these days more or less resemble those elsewhere.


    What is more interesting is to go a little bit back from the era of the buffet and find out what decorative items were used in a living room. Yes, thinking in this direction, one cannot miss the graceful living room dining table know as the mesob.


    The mesob is a handmade dining table with its own lid cover. It is completely made out of a straw and it comes in different designs and artistic features. The mesob also has its own hand-woven cloth cover where amazing design and craftsmanship is displayed.


    The cover is from the family of traditional hand-woven Ethiopia cloth and is marked with elaborate patterns and bright colors which are discernible in other household items such as pillow covers, runners, table settings, bedspreads and the like.


    Come to think about it, craftsmanship has been a way of life for centuries. Starting from out fits, house decorative objects and kitchen utensils all were made completely by hand. The artisanal handicraft was deeply engraved among the society, and it was not among those who do it professionally; rather random individuals possessed the knowledge of weaving, knitting, pottery, basketry, and gardening as it was passed on from generation to generation.


    Chekolu Belete, 55, spent most of her lifetime doing handicraft especially processing cottonwear. Though it looks to be outdated in the urban areas, her inzirt, an instrument she uses to thread the cotton, is always on her hand. If it is not inzirt, other knitting wire like needle and thread is always around her.


     Though she has been a civil servant for more than 30 years, her handcraftware is her favorite hobby.


    It was a knowledge that was passed on from her mother, whom, Chekolu calls a modern-day renaissance woman who prepares everything the family needs from edible oil and cereal flour to herbal medicine and clothing in the house.


    Growing up Chekolu took the knowledge of handicraft from her late mother and the surrounding community. Apart from that, during her childhood handicraft were an integral part of the educational system.


    Together with her sisters, they learned how to separate the seed from the cotton and making it soft and fluffy, and then ready to be threaded and learn how to use inzirt as a spinning wheel to make a yarn. She reminisces how many of the neighborhood girls used to carry inzirt. It was part of their daily life to knit sweaters, scarves, and decorate the house with colorful embroidery of famous quotes from the bible.


    Even as a working mother, she spent her time making a bed-spread cover, table settings, pillow covers and also colorful mesobs. In her neighborhood, she was known for a distinctive feature and highly elaborates patterns of her embroidery work. She concentrated and took her time to make beautiful designs. She does not hide how time-consuming it is though. Drawing complicated intrinsic designs on the cloths and sewing that using a thread and needle of various colors is a laborious activity, Chekolu says. Her production was never for sale. “Many knew how to do embroidery and so I didn’t think I could make money using that,” Chekolu says.


    Now her sight is getting weaker. So she does not engage in complicated patterns. “I was born at a time when handicraft did not make money. Now, I see people getting paid thousands of birr for a piece of embroidery on a cloth,” Chekolu says. However, many argue that these days handcraftsmanship is going through a process of merchandising. Traditional handmade items are becoming commodities with high market value; now the craft is there for the monetarily value it drives. Yet again, many argue this trend is not unique to Ethiopia; rather the commodification of the creative process is a global phenomenon.


    With increasing market value for handcrafted goods, handcraftsmanship looks to be taking a firm hold; but this is not so with regard to the its practice as a hobby. And, the reflection of this trend is everywhere. For one, handcraft was part of the formal education curriculum in Ethiopia for many years. Back then, students were taught how to use their hand and creative mind. In fact, the handcraft subject was about harnessing the creative mind of students with a piece of cloth, straw or even a piece of wood. The old curriculum, in fact, was heavily invested in handcraft. 


    Belay Kebede, a young student under the old curriculum, remembers how handcraft used to be the core element of the school curriculum back then. Now, reflecting back, introducing handicraft, home economics and agriculture to students gave him a unique insight to have everyday problem-solving ability and the understanding of the materials of economies, culture and the environment.


    One of the main topics was handicraft which incorporates a wide range of creative and design activities including work with thread, textiles, moldable and rigid materials, paper, plant, fibers and thread.


    Belay lights up when he remembers a lamp made of horn or a hand-woven headscarf from his school days. Though their handicraft class was based on gender binary definition there were those who pushed the boundary. According to Belay, the women were keen to knit, do embroidery, or make kitchen utensils or decorative items using straw.


    The boys sharpen wood, make the design to make stools, practice pottery to make coffee pot chambers, cooking stove made of clay which also incorporates the option of electricity among other things, Belay recalls.


    Was that important in their lives? “Of course it was,” Belay says passionately.  Even then, we made kacha (a rope that is made from the remnants of enset tree) for our scout club members,” Belay says.


    According to Belay, the kebeles assigns a specific land for the youth and the women who want to participate in handicraft and agriculture.


    Nevertheless, during the introduction of the new educational curriculum, subjects such as handicraft were discarded from the primary schooling system.


    Yodit Adane, 24, passed through the new school curriculum and did not get to learn handicraft. Rather she developed an interest in looking after her mother who had a small group of friends who make small income from handicraft. Her mother started teaching her on weekends while she was in high school. She was taught the basics of how to process cotton and knit, “It was important for my mother; so being the only child, it was a way to relate to my mother in things that matter to her the most,” Yodit says.


    One of the knitting projects she worked with her mother, a cushion decorators with a color of black, red, yellow and green, was called Tsehay Gebat, Yodit recalls. Named after one of the military missions during the Ethio-Eritra war, Tsehay Gebat was one of the most popular knitting styles during that time. Yodit seems to have forgotten the craft for quite some time before reviving it three years ago. She had a lot of spare time. So she started making jewelry and continued with the knitting. “It was therapeutic and a way of communicating with my mother,” Yodit says. 


    According to a research entitled, “The Education and Training Policy and Its Implementation” by the Ministry of Education, the proclaimed strength of the old curriculum is highly overrated. It argued that it paid a mere lip-service to the importance of handicraft but did not deliver on the rhetoric. The research continues to argue by saying that the old system did not help students to develop or cultivate practical and vocational skills in practical terms.



    However, students who passed through the old school system, such as Helina Debebe, oppose this idea. Rather, she believes the introduction of the subjects such as handicraft from the 3rd grade onwards widens pupils’ horizon by adding imagination and creativity. Though it is not part of her adult life, she believes the exercise was good, “It definitely expands your imagination,” Helina says.


    Though some people make sure that tradition of handicraft gets passed on to their beloved ones, in case of Helina, it did not have managed to pass to her since she did not have the interest. Looking back, she understands the relevance of this subject; which is improving group work. Most of these activities were grouped based and she believes it increases the group spirit.


    With no longer a mainstay of a formal curriculum, many of the young urban students lost the technique of knitting a sweater, decorating the house with piece of cloth or making colorful straws. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for Dilamo Ottore, Head of Addis Ababa Education Bureau. He says the new education curriculum was necessary so that students learn in accordance with potential and needs.


    According to Dilamo, the curriculum was designed to provide basic education and integrate knowledge at various levels of vocational training. He does not believe that these subject matters were omitted altogether. He argues that many of the subjects in the primary level were rather reintegrated into the system under different subjects in vocational training stream: agriculture, industrial arts, commerce and home science construction, basic bookkeeping, apprenticeship. But, he admits that many of the vocational graduates do not seem to be involved or interested in producing handcrafted goods.


    In contemporary Addis Ababa, apart from commercial weavers in kechene and Shiromeda, most of the popular handicraft are confined to organizations which are established for a purpose of charity. Going to churchil area or some touristic places, one can notice almost many of the handcraft are not from Ethiopia. Rather they are imported from neighboring countries such as Kenya. Those mesobs that are served as dining table are downgraded in exotic elements to touristic restaurants.

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  • What is art’s worth in Ethiopia?

    What is art’s worth in 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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  • Ethiopia’s Female Fashion Designers Embrace Tradition to Boost Sales


    Ethiopia’s Female Fashion Designers Embrace Tradition to Boost Sales

    A model wearing YeFikir clothing. Growing international recognition for designers in Ethiopia and Africa is partly a result of growing demand for ethically-produced fashion designs. Credit: Kyle La Mere/IPS

    ADDIS ABABA, Mar 20 2014 (IPS) - Female fashion designers are drawing on Ethiopia’s rich cultural heritage and adding a modern twist to find success at home and increasingly impress abroad. 

    In fact, fashion design is proving to be one of the most successful Ethiopian sectors for small business and entrepreneurs, generating profit margins ranging from 50 percent to more than 100 percent, according to Mahlet Afework, the 25-year-old Addis Ababa-based founder of fashion line MAFI.

    The country is a fashion designer’s dream due to its multiple ethnic groups from which one can draw design inspiration, Mahlet tells IPS. Her most recent collection was inspired by the Dinguza pattern from southern Ethiopia’s Chencha region.

    “[Ethiopia’s fashion industry] is showing the diversity and beauty of Ethiopian culture, and providing some of the world’s best hand-woven cotton fabrics.” -- Fikirte Addis, fashion designer and founder of YeFikir Design

    Small companies like Mahlet’s can flourish due to the absence of big chain department stores, and relatively low start-up costs set against high prices individuals are willing to pay for quality hand-made fashion garments

    And the economy at large is benefiting from increased international interest in Ethiopia’s textile and garment industry. The industry’s small-scale businesses, with a labour force of 10 or less, registered exports of 62.2 million dollars in 2011, up from 14.6 million dollars in 2008.

    And the Ethiopian government believes the industry can raise its aggregate production value to 2.5 billion dollars by the end of 2015.

    Ethiopia’s successful fashion designers are predominantly women, according to Mahlet and other designers, who grew up surrounded by traditionally woven cotton fabrics, learning from mothers and aunts the tailoring and embroidering skills for making beautiful and delicate clothing.

    This female-inspired heritage is not forgotten. Mahlet works exclusively with female weavers to help them support themselves and their families amid a male-dominated weaving sector.

    White cotton cloth being made on a traditional Ethiopian weaving loom. Credit: Salima Punjani/IPS

    White cotton cloth being made on a traditional Ethiopian weaving loom. Credit: Salima Punjani/IPS

    Despite many designers having the advantage of a home-spun fashion education, a lack of formal fashion design education is preventing many from breaking out internationally, says Mahlet, who is self-taught and credits Google Search as her primary tutor.

    Another problem in the international arena is conducting sales transactions.

    Ethiopian banking restrictions mean there are no foreign banks in Ethiopia and international customers are often reluctant to pay into African banking accounts, fashion designer Fikirte Addis, founder of Addis Ababa-based YeFikir Design, tells IPS.

    The company currently has to sell through Africa Design Hub, a U.S.-based online store founded in 2013 by Western expatriates to showcase African designs.

    “After living in East Africa for several years we saw the potential of African designs in the global market,” the store’s co-founder Elizabeth Brown tells IPS.

    She also noticed a gap in market linkages and knowledge sharing between the industry and global consumers, which Africa Design Hub seeks to bridge.

    Currently almost all of its customers are in the U.S., although this year it plans to start selling products to Canada and Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan that have shown interests in African-made goods.

    Fashion design success in Ethiopia also depends on embracing the ever-changing present while keeping an eye on the past, Fikirte says.

    All YeFikir designs are made by hand or on traditional weaving machines operated by those using techniques that go back centuries to when Ethiopians made all their own clothing.

    “I love the traditional aspect of the clothing,” Rihana Aman, a café owner in Addis Ababa, who visited the YeFikir shop to buy a wedding dress, tells IPS. “So many dresses now are too modern, and use fabrics that lose what it means to be Ethiopian.”

    Fikirte deals directly with and visits weavers she sources from to ensure that skills and incomes stay within communities, and practises remain ethical. She notes how children have been trafficked within the weaving industry.

    As a result of the painstaking time and work required to make the garments, YeFikir custom-made dresses can sell for up to 15,300 birr (850 dollars), a sizeable sum, especially in a country where many toil for no more than 50 birr (3 dollars) a day.

    Despite such apparent inequities, many Ethiopians — especially those in the growing middle class — remain content to pay handsomely for tailored garments with traditional influences, Mahlet says.

    Ethiopians take great pride in the country’s ethnic diversity — around 84 languages and 200 dialects are spoken — and in displaying allegiances through clothing at special events such as weddings and festivals, Mahlet says.

    This demand is seeping into the mainstream also. Mahlet’s clothing line MAFI specialises in ready-to-wear garments offering a notably funky take on the country’s ethnic melting pot. And it is a take that has proved successful.

    International interest in Ethiopia’s fashion scene is undoubtedly growing — in 2012 Mahlet showcased her work at African Fashion Week New York. However, there are still some misconceptions. On a European flight, Mahlet recalls sitting next to a passenger who was surprised to hear that fashion designers existed in Ethiopia.

    Others are not so surprised.

    “Ethiopia has some wonderful and interesting craftsmanship,” Markus Lupfer, a London-based fashion designer of international repute who since 2010 has worked with Ethiopian fashion designers, told IPS.

    Growing international recognition for designers in Ethiopia and Africa is partly a result of growing demand for ethically-produced fashion designs, Lupfer says.

    Although for now such recognition still eludes many of Ethiopia’s fashion designers. And while local demand remains buoyant, designers agree that international demand remains the key to success.

    Hence Mahlet and Fikirte plan to bolster their companies’ online presences this year. Both share a goal of exporting clothes to boutiques and online stores — and want to show the world what Ethiopian designers are capable of.

    “Ethiopia’s fashion industry is changing the image of Ethiopia,” Fikirte says. “It is showing the diversity and beauty of Ethiopian culture, and providing some of the world’s best hand-woven cotton fabrics.”

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  • Ethiopian film goes to Uganda

    Ethiopia League is better organised – Ayoola ‘Kanu’ Moses

    Ethiopian film goes to Uganda

    The two-hour movie starts with a scene in which armed fighters storm a village party and forcefully take away young boys to join their ranks. Those who attempt to flee are shot in cold blood and left for dead in the arms of their helpless, wailing mothers.

    Set in Ethiopia in the 1970s, and directed by Ethiopian film maker Haile Gerima, Teza or Morning Dew tells the story of the fall of their last emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1974.

    Morning Dew is one of 44 films that were featured during the first Euro-Africa Film Festival at the theatre La Bonita in Kampala last month.

    In 2008, the picture won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Festival, and in 2009 it won the best African Film at the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou.

    Although Haile Selassie was in exile during the Italian invasion, he managed to get support from outside Ethiopia and eventually overthrew the colonialists. After reinstating his rule in 1941, he implemented well-intentioned economic, social and education reforms.

    However, his efforts were undermined by a growing rebellion from Eritrea and prolonged famine. In 1974, Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew him; his death marked the beginning of a 15-year reign of terror in Ethiopia.

    Loaded with emotional scenes and nerve-wrecking violence, the film takes us through the terror under the Mengistu-led Derg, a communist military Junta that governed Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987. Mengistu became the president of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia from 1987 to 1991; he is currently exiled in Zimbabwe.

    The film is rich with themes of love, forgiveness, revolution, genocide, and racism in Europe against immigrants. It shows the suffering of children of mixed race, and the struggles of individuals to find their place in the country.

    We see the sufferings, confusion and frustrations of ordinary Ethiopians inside Ethiopia, and in West Germany, through the main character Anberber.

    Anberber is a young Ethiopian post graduate doctor who comes back from Germany at the peak of the Cold War under the Mengistu regime. While working in a hospital, he witnesses a number of murders — including one of his best friends, and finds himself at odds with the revolutionary fighters running the country.

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