Since the artists in our country are once again rightfully following contemporary trends of creating and refining, we have great hope for the future.” Ale Felege Selam, 1968
On the threshold of a new century — a new millennium — talking and writing about 20th century Ethiopian art by nature includes talking and writing about art education in Ethiopia, as well as the path to modernization. There is no better way to accomplish these tasks than by focusing on one significant individual, Ale Felege Selam Hiruy. In 1959, Ale Felege Selam played a decisive role in the foundation of a modern art school: the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts. He would become its director. This accomplishment was in stark contrast to the 1940s wherein the first group of Western-educated artists — Abebe Wolde Giorgis, Agegnehu Engeda and Zerihun Dominique — failed, one after another, to do similar.
Before continuing with Ale’s history, let us first take a look at historical context. Sele, which means “art,” has a long history in the country. Thus anybody wanting to do Sele required an art education of some kind. The concept of “art education” was distinctly different from “craft training” and was considered a product of the learned. An art education had existed in the nation for several centuries; the church school system prepared scholars, known as Arat-Ayna (Four-Eyed Ones) who were also artists. They were sought after as scholars and as masters of the arts of traditional instruction and scholarship. However, as the 19th century progressed, ancient teaching methods gradually waned and faded away — including art education.
The concept of modernizing Ethiopian art education was born as part of the overall modernizing of Ethiopia, which began during the second part of the 19th century. This was a period that saw the beginnings of unification, military reform, the birth of fairly well developed literary Amharic, and the establishment of schools. As the foundations of modern educational institutions moved, in less than a century, from Gafat, Maqdela, and Tamben to Entotto – where it finally flourished in Addis Ababa — so did its artistic foundations.
As a matter of practicality, we set the clock of the modernization of art education in 1887. This was when the church trained artists; self-taught artists from all around the nation were lured to Entoto. Atse Menelik decided to send Afewerk Gebre Yesus to study art in Europe. In less than a quarter of a century, the art modernization movement shifted from its center in Entoto, where it all began, to Addis Ababa in part and to its primary center in Arat Kilo. In the 1940s, the modern art movement began to bloom — first with figures like Abebe Wolde Giorgis, Agegnehu Engeda and Zerihun Dominique, and moving on to the parliament studio, the Kine Tibebe School and the Prince Shale Selassie School. It finally reached its peak in 1959 at the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts. There, Ale Felege stayed on as the director until he was forced to resign in 1974.
Ale Felege was born in Selale, Fitch in 1924 and moved to Addis Ababa at an early age. After graduating from Technical School in Addis Ababa, he worked in a garage until the emperor granted him a scholarship to go abroad and study engineering. But engineering aside, Ale received his B.A. in Fine Arts from the Institute of Art, Chicago — reputedly the most influential art college in the United States — in 1954. Shortly thereafter, he traveled to Europe; after returning home, he joined the Ministry of Education and Fine Arts.
Ale organized the first show for himself and his students in his own studio in 1955. During the couple of years he worked with the Minister of Education and Point Four, he painted, organized, and participated in shows and work as jury member. He served as a committee member at the 1958 first annual Ethiopian Students’ Arts and Crafts Exhibition. He also participated in several group shows and helped organize the 1967 Montreal show, representing Ethiopia.
His paintings exhibited in public places include those at the Trinity Cathedral St. Mary in Addis Ababa, and at Kulubi Gabriel Church in Harerge. He also designed postage stamps, illustrated books and designed several portraits and flyers. Apart from his commissioned works, Ale is interested in landscape and portrait painting. His paintings, we know, depict pensive individuals against flat dark backgrounds that are all the more powerful for their simplicity, psychological statements and articulations in rigorous, formal terms. It seems evident that he influenced some of his first students in this regard. Many of the early 1960s-era art school students displayed a similar vitality and the influence of Ale in their somber landscape and genre paintings. Ale respected the themes that traditional art had come to represent. If it appears to some observers that he turned his back on tradition, they should keep in mind that such a rejection was only on the surface. His theory about art was similar to those of many of his contemporaries and did not seem to have any set of aesthetic preconceptions. Many things remain to be said about his artworks; however, the research has not yet begun.
Ale had naturally seen many Western modernist art while he was studying in Chicago. But his interest in mainstream art was puzzling and complicated. Nobody, for example, indicated why Ale, who studied in America in the 1950s, failed to follow the art movement of the time. At this point in time, until all historical materials are compiled, the matter of how best to characterize Ale’s artistic achievements is very complex.
Why did he, on the other hand, dedicate himself to encouraging and helping Ethiopian artists who favored the international mainstream art movement? Ale was able to anticipate and distinguish between short-term benefits and long-term benefits. He was quite aware of the changes that transformed the art world at the beginning of this century, and knew that Ethiopian painting lagged behind the times by several hundred years. Thus he made sure that the school didn’t embrace any one particular artistic style or theory nor abandon the art of the century. Despite the fact that his style of art identifies with the official style of art — as evidenced by the fact that he decorated churches and government buildings and painted portraits in a more conventional style — he did not show any determination to make the school reflect his kind of art. It seems that Ale had clear ideas about the function and role of the art school. He was not totally convinced that students should be trained as illustrators like those of Kine Tibebe School.
In the modernist building of the school, that maintains a certain likable architecture, even by today’s standards — there does not exist much signifying the ancient or the near past that would have burdened and overwhelmed its students. Neither the parliament studio artists works, nor the Kine Tibebe School artists’ works — not even the works of the first Western-educated artists —were considered important or good enough to be displayed in the new school’s gallery. It is no surprise that consequently; the students highly favored Western modernist art.
In fact, Kine Tibebe School was closed because it was considered conservative and out of touch with the modern art world. Once the School of Fine Arts was up and running, the Ministry of Education and Fine Arts gave Kine Tibebe School artists monthly stipends and studios behind the new building to continue their painting. As many of these artists were founding members of the first Ethiopian Artists Club, founded just before the school was opened, students were encouraged to visit them in their studios.
In the 1970s, there were still over 300 paintings by these artists in the store at the School of Fine Arts. Following the trend in painting portraits of women, started by Agenhu and later adopted by Afewerk and Ale himself, many of these artists played a critical role in depicting urban and rural Ethiopian women in their daily activities. Middle-class yearnings, morality, reformism, patriotism and activism are fundamental factors in the work of these artists. They would depict Ethiopians’ way of life and paint historical scenes even before such subjects had gained popularity via the occasional photography exhibit. They are all-Ethiopian to their bones and reflected the emerging middle-class; they are not in any way “traditionalists” or “traditional” artists. They are among the pioneers who modernized 20th century Ethiopian art. However, due to the backgrounds and education of the artists, their works are technically less convincing and less influential, and they remain obscure or unknown.
Ale had to exclude all these generation artists when establishing the school. As was the case at the time with higher-learning schools, Ale had to recruit instructors from the foreign community residing in Addis Ababa. Of these generation artists, only one, Yigezu Bisrat, succeeded in becoming a staff member of the school. (Yigezu would prove to be an innovator and pioneer of Ethiopian calligraphy).
However, though he had made a clean sweep of nationally trained artists from the school and hired foreign instructors, he knew he could not change the direction of art in the country alone. He solicited the aid of influential officials, including Kebed Mikael, in order to realize his vision. Many enlightened individuals got involved in helping Ale in his efforts. In addition, since Ale boasted more connections to members of the royal family and several high officials than any of his contemporary peers, his way of handling the school was favored and praised by the authorities. The Emperor, his most important patron, frequently visited the school, even more than any famous poets, authors or other cultural figures. Since political propaganda, commissioned artworks and royal portraits were done either by foreign artists, former parliament studio artists, Kine Tibebe school artists, Afewerk or by Ale himself, he did not expect or even want see the school as promoting his doctrines. The Emperor’s visits were to display encouragement and support and he was pleased with what he witnessed. It was only during the Ethiopian revolution that instructors, as well as students of the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts, were expected to be part of the propaganda machine for the government.
Ale’s objective and the official’s interest was to prepare independent professional working artists who could express their artistic personas with free will in a modern setting and environment. It is also important to consider the artistic interests of Ale in relation to the kind of art that was taught and practiced at the Kine Tibebe School. As a founder and the school director, Ale wanted to have it both ways — teaching the elementary and conventional aspects of drawings and paintings while keeping the school in touch with the currents of the art world. Despite his broad-minded goals, Ale nevertheless had preferences for certain kinds of subject matter, chiefly those expressing important national values. But overall, he encouraged a broader range of national themes. For example, there was no indication that he tried to make the school reflect Ethiopian identity. Nor is there any evidence that he persuaded students to create any kind of modern icons reflecting Ethiopia’s faiths or cultures. Rather, he believed in a healthy future for Ethiopian art education and encouraged students regarding their performances. Most artists, graduates of the School of Fine Arts, present instructors at the school and important artists elsewhere say that Ale allowed for any kind of artistic approach and tendency in the school. From every angle, it seems that he left a level field for a pluralistic art scene to flourish in the School.
Ale’s all-inclusive intention became even clearer a couple years after the school’s founding. In accord with the Ministry of Education and Fine Arts, he worked hard to prepare students to be art teachers. He hired as staff members Zemenay, Ethiopian modernist artists educated abroad. Gebre Kristos Desta, Skunder Boghossian, Tadesse Gizaw, Bisrat Bekele, Abdel- Rahman M Sherif, Worku Goshu, Tadesse Belyneh and Tadesse Mamecha joined the school as instructors between 1962 to 1972. The grammar of art — perspective, anatomy and academic drawing in general, narrative representation that evolved at the parliament studio, the Kine Tibebe school and during the first year of Ale’s school — were slowly beginning to look rather irrelevant. The dimensions of this trend projected not only upon an artistic freedom but also included a celebration of eclecticism wherein several contemporary international styles can quickly be identified: realism, impressionism, critical realism, surrealism, abstract, abstract expressionism, symbolism and expressionism. All were introduced to the school by these instructors.
The school’s most notable modernist achievements clearly represented pan-Ethiopian will, character, feel and spirit. This new esthetic expression become apparent at the landmark annual exhibitions of the school, held between 1963 and 1973. While the desperate concern Ethiopia’s people regarding the state of the nation continues, the Ethiopian art world provides a glimpse of hope and a common ground through its genuine expression of national spirit. If pluralism is the style of 20th century Ethiopian art, then the credit, or the blame, goes to Ale and the way he ran the only art school in the nation. Whatever definition and standard was given for 20th century Ethiopian art, its modernization phase has been attained and may be completed by the school. If, half a century after its establishment, the school did not achieve an academic or higher institution status, it is due to administrative and cultural complexity.
A decade after Ale first led the school, during the early 1970s and especially after the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, it was widely predicted that his glory days were over. He would be the subject of more iconoclastic scrutiny. Such scrutiny included unsubstantiated rumors that he was involved more with his farm and hunting affairs than with the day-to-day activities of the school. Ale only contributed to his sinking reputation when he interfered regarding the works of graduating students’ subject matters during the time of the mayhem. Ale was unhappy to see contemporary and radical subject matter displayed on students’ diploma works. Staff members were unhappy with his involvement. Although there have been no seriously researched accounts on these matters yet, the caricatures students drew depicting Ale sleeping on the roof of the school would provide the final blow. After 15 years as founder and director, Ale was intimidated by radical students, and the new government was forced to compel him to resign from his position.
Described by many as a fine individual with a charismatic character, Ale did not attract public attention. And despite the fact that art exhibitions have become a regular activity since the school’s opening —including its own annual exhibition—Ale never had his one-man show after 1955. He is the most reclusive and reserved of all artists. To the young students he was as remote, and as irrelevant, a personality as he would later appear to the young military juntas. There was something private and withdrawn, almost unapproachable, about him. He fits what the renowned artist Mezgebu Tessema said in general about Ethiopia artists: ‘introverted’. Students and staff members alike do not talk about him, especially in public. For the older generation of artists, for whom the school is most associated with Ale, any impolite action toward him appears incomprehensible and ungrateful.
Since his resignation, many things have changed. Presently, the school is affiliated with Addis Ababa University under its new name, Addis Ababa University School of Fine Arts and Design. At last count it had six directors: Abdul Rahman Mouhamed Sherif, Tadesse Belaynh, Getachew Yosef, Bekele Mekonnen, Melaku Ayle, and Muze Awel. All are school alumnae.
In becoming part of Addis Ababa University, the school risks losing its semi-autonomous tradition. It is very unlikely that the kind of spirit that fermented for several years at the school will ever be resuscitated, even with the same kind of structure. But as it is, affiliating the school to the University may well dismantle what little there is left of its 50-year-old modern art tradition. If Ale had been consulted on this matter, he would not have approved it. One may also ask that, if up until now the University had never affiliated specialized schools, such as the Teacher Training Institute, Commercial school or Technical school, then why would it want to affiliate the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts now? Since it is believed that the school had contributed a lot and attained its goals; it should have been helped to become a charter school and left alone to follow its own course. If, at this point in the national modern education, an art department or art school is crucial — which it is — then the University would have been much better off opening its own School of Art and Design, or a department that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in a wide range of arts disciplines.
Ale ultimately wanted to be remembered as a painter. In 2006, at the age of 82, he traveled from Ethiopia to Maryland in the United States to decorate Ethiopian Orthodox Church. However, Ale is still associated with and admired more for his role as the school’s founder, director and educator rather than as a painter himself. Even in his heydays, he never garnered as many honors as, say, Gebre Kristos or Skunder for his art. The Haile Selassie I prize for Fine Arts was awarded to these two artists in 1965 and 1967 respectively. In 1972, the fourth award for Fine Arts went to the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts, rather than to Ale.
The true spirit and legacy of Ale lies in the history of the school and within the field of art education. Nobody before him and to this day accomplished so much in promoting Ethiopian art and Ethiopian artists. No one has come close to approaching his level of contribution in popularizing and teaching art. Many successful and not-so successful artists are, in some way, his pupils. Clearly, Ale is among those who can be called pioneers of art education in Ethiopia, and he remains among the most renowned group. Considering the national and international achievements of the school’s alumnae, and the growing public interest in art during the past fifty years, it is not an overstatement to dub Ale Felege Selam Ethiopia’s Artist-Educator of the Century.
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