Meskerem Assegued Bantiwalu
Founding Director and Curator: Zoma Contemporary Art Center (ZCAC), Addis Ababa and Harla near DireDawa. Internationally renowned art curator and an anthropological exhibition curator
Current Position: Director, ZCAC
Birth Place: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Current Home: Addis Ababa
Several schools in Addis Ababa and Debrezeit including Nazareth School, Cathedral School, New Era School, LyceeGebremariam School in Addis and Model School in Debrezeit
LyceeGebremariam, Addis Ababa
BA, Clinical Psychology, Park University, Parkville, Missouri, USA
Masters, Cultural Anthropology, The McGregor School of Antioch University, USA
Primary Work Area
Curatorial – contemporary art
MeskeremAssegedBantiwalu is an art curator and an anthropologist with a passionate commitment to encouraging art and preserving culture in harmony with the natural environment. In addition to curating numerous exhibitions in Ethiopia and abroad, she writes about art and culture, and has served on selection committees for key international exhibitions. She is a founding director of ZCAC (Zoma Contemporary Art Center) in Addis Ababa and Harla, a small village near Dire Dawa.
Born to parents from very different backgrounds, Meskerem grew up close to both her father’s aristocratic and her mother’s middle class families. Her father, eccentric for his time, was supportive of her independent spirit. Her mother was strongly committed to educating her daughters, always telling them how important it was to develop their own identity and career. Despite the class and socioeconomic differences between her parents’ backgrounds, she grew up with a great deal of freedom and great love from both sides. She was a girl who did what she believed in. She enjoyed her personal freedom, played with boys, and roamed where she pleased. As a child, Meskerem used to marvel at animals’ behavior and nature, as well as how animals and plants live in harmony.
Growing up in Addis Ababa and Debrezeit, Meskerem attended primary school in both cities and completed high school at LyceeGebremariam in Addis Ababa. When she was 17, she taught French at what used to be the American Community School, now the International Community School. She then went to the United States to pursue higher education. After graduating from college, she married and had two children. She was always fascinated by art; therefore, during her years in college, she took a number of art and art related courses, including modern and jazz dance. In those days, most people did not regard art as a true profession. She was expected to pursue a career in more prestigious fields such as medicine or engineering. Accordingly, she studied Clinical Psychology for her undergraduate degree at Park College (later Park University) residence center in Ohio, USA. She remembers spending lots of time growing a variety of bacteria on shelf full of petri dishes just to see the shapes, patterns and colors of the bacteria strains in her science laboratory.
Her search for her own culture and cultural identity evolved during her master’s studies at the McGregor School of Antioch University in Ohio. She returned to Ethiopia through an affiliation between the McGregor School and Addis Ababa University to obtain a master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology. She was also determined to raise her children in Ethiopia. Her curiosity about her ancestors led her to focus her thesis and fieldwork on the culture of the Oromo people regarding the practice ofErecha in DebreZeyet.
For Meskerem, art was an abiding preoccupation connected to everything she studied and did. While in the United States, she lived with her family in Yellow Springs, Ohio, an alternative and artistic community where she was involved in making art, curating exhibitions, organizing dances and music as well as staging productions and acting in dramas, such as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and others. Eventually, she realized that she needed to follow her passion for art full-heartedly and it became her life's work. She says that her heroes are people who have had the confidence to follow their dreams and love what they do.
In 2002, she organized Giziawi #1, a live exhibition inside a large tent on Meskel Square, a significant open-air venue in the heart of Addis Ababa. This exhibition was the turning point of her artistic journey. It was also when the dream of ZCAC was first introduced to the public. This exhibition brought five international and ten Ethiopian artists to create their work as the public watched. Motivated by Giziawi #1, the journey to build a permanent center for artist-in-residence programs and art-related workshops for Ethiopian and international artists began. The idea of ZCAC is to leave behind both tangible and intangible artistic ideas by researching the past in order to work with the present in an effort to protect the future generation. The first center, in Addis Ababa, was constructed by Elias Sime, one of the most prolific artists in Ethiopia. He used environmentally friendly traditional materials and techniques to build it. Today, using similar methods, a second center is being built in Harla, near Dire Dawa, by resident artists and architects from Ethiopia and other parts of the world in collaboration with the local population.
Some of the exhibitions and workshops Meskerem has curated and organized over the years include: World Press Photo 2002 and 2003 exhibitions at the Ethiopian National Museum; Green Flame, a visual art exhibition for the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna, Austria; Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, California; and Ants and Ceramicists in Addis Ababa by Elias Sime. She was also a member ofthe selection committees for the 2004 Dak’Art Biennale and the 52nd Venice Biennale's African Pavilion in 2007. She organized workshops such as the International Art Critics Association (AICA) workshop in Ethiopia in 2005 and “Where Do We Go From Here?” in 2011, about how curatorial practices might change in regard to environmentalism. She writes articles on art and culture for newspapers, journals and catalogues. She also wrote “Diving for Honey”, a children’s book of Ethiopian folktales. One example of her anthropological exhibitions is the 2005 ‘Min Neber?’(“What was it?”), where she conducted field research with Elias Sime in the Gurage region about an annual thunder ritual. It was the story of a dying Ethiopian indigenous ritual and its relationship to nature.
Meskerem believes that, through collaboration, a harmonious relationship can be established between humanity and the rest of the natural world. Her commitment to future generations is the reason she is committed to involve as many young people as possible to share her passion for art, culture and environment. She hopes to be a bridge for the next generation, to whom she can pass on the work she has been doing. Her dream is to help foster a society of people that work, not in competition with each other, but in collaboration with one another through understanding and cooperation.
While Meskerem is happy now that her work in the arts has influenced some people and attracted international attention, she views the love she shares with her family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances as her greatest achievement. Though she has faced obstacles in her life, she views them as her strength and valuable lessons for a better future. One of her favorite African Americans sayings is “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”. She has learned to keep her eyes on the prize while maintaining positive energy and learning from her challenges.
Meskerem’s advice to young women: There is a simple rule in life: live in harmony with nature. If we observe it, learn from it and protect it, nature will continue to give in abundance.