9 December 2012

Ethiopia: A Gradual Rise in Art Appreciation, Pricing

Ever since he was a child, Atkilt Assefa, 37, used to draw different pictures on pieces of papers on his own. However, his passion has grown over the years and has become a huge factor in shaping his future career.

After completing 12th grade in 1997, he tried to develop his painting skills by contacting different art students and teachers for four years. In 2000, he met Tesfaye Negatu, a professional painter, who studied art inRussiaand now teaches drawing in his one-room class rented from theMedhaneAlemSchoolonSwaziland Streetin the Gulele District.

Atkilt studied with him for four years. He then rented a studio with four friends and started making traditional paintings on leather.

"Most of our paintings at that time were sold to retailers at a very cheap price," said Atkilt. "Since we all were beginners and did not have a lot of experience, few of our paintings attracted buyers' interest."

According to him, most of the young artists at that time were given very little attention. They tried to promote their art work by themselves, which for the most part was not successful.

"It was very difficult to cover all my expenses just by selling my paintings," Atkilt recalls.

Over the years Atkilt adjusted the way he priced his paintings. As he got more and more experience, he began to consider things like the time, effort and creativity that he exerted on his works.

It is not just Atkilt that changed his views about the way paintings should be priced; the art industry inEthiopiaas a whole does not have consensus or a specific yardstick by which artists should price their artwork.

The amount that an artist can earn is largely dependent upon the exposure of his work to the public and the reputation of the gallery displaying his art. Atkilt began to make more from his paintings when he managed to sell some of them throughMakushArtGallery, one of the 22 art galleries operating in Addis Abeba and owned by Tesfaye Daru.

The main purpose of Makush gallery is to promote art and to provide a space that will enable them to be put into the market for sale. Therefore, the gallery is open to emerging artists like Atkilt, as well as to more renowned artists.

"To determine the monetary value of a piece we look at how well the painting is done, the reputation of the artist, time spent on the piece, size, skill of the artist and other similar criteria," said Abiy Chernet, marketing manager of Makush. "In addition to these, the taste of our customers is also taken into consideration."

Typically when an artist brings a painting to Makush gallery, he may come up with his own price scheme but it can also be left open to negotiation. The artist then has to agree to give 50pc as a commission to the gallery; this also includes tax, rent, framing, transport, delivery cost and others, according to Abiy.

Unlike Atkilt, there are some distinguished artists, like Lulseged Retta, who have become very successful in the Ethiopian art community, and have little trouble convincing buyers of the worth and pricing of their paintings.

Lulseged is not only a well-known contemporary artist but he is one of the few who has managed to make a successful living out of his painting. He has been a full time painter and owner of his own studio in Addis Abeba since 1996.

Lulseged has so far managed to showcase his works at sole exhibitions, 25 locally and 11 outsideEthiopiain countries likeDjibouti,Egypt,Kenya, the formerUSSR,Czechoslovakia,Switzerland,France,China,Japan,Germanyand theUnited States. He has also participated in over 10 group exhibitions. But this did not come easily for him.

"I consider myself very lucky to be where I am today and this is the outcome of my own personal effort, commitment and struggle," said Lulseged.

So far he has sold his paintings for up to 120,000Br.Even in the recently held 'Art of Ethiopia' Exhibition, he managed to sell seven paintings out of the 10 he displayed.

In comparison, the highest price Atkilt has sold a piece for is 40,000 Br,and even this was for an auction aimed at raising funds for children with autism.

Although there may be large discrepancies when it comes to art prices, Bekele Mekonen, a teacher of sculpture and theoretical art at Alle School of Art inAddisAbebaUniversitysince 1994, believes that some standardization is possible.

In pricing an art piece, there is what is called an aesthetic value, which is the value of a painting as a professional piece. Then there is the market value, where the value of a painting is calculated after considering the identity of the artist, previous showings at galleries and exhibitions, and the period of active involvement in the industry as well as other factors, Bekele explains.

"In the international arena, where the awareness for art is high and there are different exhibitions, auctions, art shops and other show rooms that receive private and government support, most of the paintings are criticized, analyzed and profiled before they are priced and put up for sale," he added.

This sort of practice is not yet being applied inEthiopia.

On the other hand,St.GeorgeGallery, which opened in 1990 and was probably the first gallery in Addis Abeba, has set a higher standard for the paintings it displays. It primarily features leading Ethiopian artists like Gebrekirstos Desta, Afework Tekle, Tadesse Mesfin, Zerihun Yetemgeta and a few young painters like Fasil Assefa, who participated in the fifth 'Art of Ethiopia' exhibition at the Sheraton Hotel.

"We mainly focus on the quality of the painting when deciding what to display or sell in our gallery," said SelamawitAlene, Manager of the gallery.

The gallery gives credibility and adds value for artists who display there. The artists in turn use the exposure and the experience gained to adequately adjust the price of their painting.

"I use my name,experience and contributions to art as the primary factor for pricing my works of art," Lulseged told Fortune."The quality of the painting, the demand of the people as well as my commitment are also taken in to consideration"

Adding to this, Mezgebu Tesema, who is also one ofEthiopia's' well known painters, agrees with Lulseged that most of the time the quality of the painting stands out as a determinant of the price. Mezgebu says paintingsare priceless and a onetime work of art which cannot be repeated. However, it does not mean that every price that an artist comes up with is reasonable.

Thus the value and the price of a painting may differ depending on the demand of people, the quality of the painting, the time it took to paint it or the age of the painting, or the history behind the inspiration for the painting.

By and large, one thing that most of the artists agree on is that art inEthiopiais developing and gaining appreciation but that it stillneeds a lot more attention. There is consensus that more people should be encouraged to study art history and steps should be taken to develop art critiques in order to expand the current art industry.

"I think galleries like Alliance-Ethio Francais and the German Cultural Institute that give artists the opportunity to display their art free of cost, have to be encouraged so that, hopefully, other show rooms will follow in their footsteps," Atkilt said, while stating that some of the art galleries these days are not giving credit to the artist and are focused on benefiting more from the paintings than the painter himself.

"Even if there are still some challenges, I have now managed to support myself by selling my paintings together with my friends, who also have other jobs besides painting" Atkilt told Fortune.

Currently, along with his four painter friends, Atkilt is working at 5 Art Studio and Gallery, in a beautiful and spacious compound located onBole Road, across the street fromMegaBuilding.

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