Riba Cantu – Addis Abeba, 2015-2019

In November 2015, I spent two weeks in Addis Ababa. Lucrezia Cippitelli, an art historian and coordinator of the interdisciplinary Master of Arts program ADDIS CONTEMPORARY, invited me the Alle School of Art and Design of the University of Addis Ababa. She asked me there to organise a workshop centred on art practices in the public space with the students of the program. She also invited me to take time to explore the city in order to locate a space or an interstice which would allow me to develop my artistic reflections and, if possible, to create a work or an artistic gesture within the city.

Lucrezia Cippitelli extended her invitation to me after having seen my work based on Aquila, an Italian city ravaged by an earthquake in 2009. Aquila not only suffered the destruction of many of its buildings, but its social, urban and political coherence were also devastated. Lucrezia Cippitelli felt that Aquila’s zombie-like state echoed the overwhelming lack of coherence she observed in Addis Ababa where a rupture in the urban and social fabric has resulted in gaping inequalities in the politico-economic development of the various zones of the city.

Lucrezia Cippitelli described the Master of Arts ADDIS CONTEMPORARY to me as an attempt to alleviate the weight on artistic practices inherently present in the current Ethiopian arts scene. During my stay, I observed that most current Ethiopian art traces its roots back to a politically orchestrated importation of realistic figurative representation and its corollary, autonomous visual art. This imported phenomenon was imposed by successive Ethiopian governments from roughly 1930 to 1991 as a process of cultural colonisation of their own country in order to consolidate their power.

It seemed to me that the introduction of autonomous visual art in Ethiopia was so forcibly linked to realistic figurative representation which, in turn, was so closely linked to the political sphere that art became inseparable from the exercise of power. At the same time, I did not have the impression that representational realistic art and autonomous visual art played any other significant role in Ethiopian society.

The colonisation of the arts that I observed seemed all the more strange and violent to me as Ethiopia was proud to have never been colonised, never having accepted the Italian occupation (1939-1941) as a colonisation.

The colonisation of the arts by means of imposing realistic figurative representation and autonomous visual art as a means of colonising culture and as an extension of the exercise of power could also be understood as the will of Haile Selassie, the DERG ( The Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia ) and its leader Mengistu Haile Marian to diverge from the cultural history of Ethiopia and from History itself. An extra-temporal History would mean a government beyond the normal confines of history, an extra- temporal and universal force. Needing no other justification than its own existence, art might not be limited to being a tool in the exercise of an ideologically definable power but might also be a form of power itself. (This idea is reinforced by the disposition of a painting of the Emperor Haile Selassie right next to a portrait of Mengistu Haile Mariam, presumably his murderer, without any contextualisation or distinction, in the hall of fame of the National Museum of Ethiopia).

Historically, the introduction of realistic figurative representation and autonomous visual can be linked to three stages. The first stage was marked with the placement of statues during the coronation of Ras Tafari Makonnen as Emperor of Ethiopia, who took the name of Haile Selassie, on November 2, 1930. On the eve of the coronation, November 1, 1930, the equestrian statue of the Emperor Menelik was unveiled in front of the St. George Cathedral where Haile Selassie was to be crowned. On November 2, the day of the coronation, a monument of the Lion of Judah was unveiled in front of the new Addis Ababa train station, Legehar.

Both statues were the work of French sculptor, Georges Gardet, a specialist of animal sculptures. They were the first sculptures introduced in urban space of Addis Ababa, indeed in the entire country, and are the first representations of the concept of figurative sculpture and public art. They are the first permanent representations of power in a social space. They both immediately underlined the two principle layers of the legitimisation of the power which caused them to be installed: that of the monopole of violence and that of an omniscient referent. But beyond that, the chosen location of each sculpture acted as a counterweight to any perceived threat to imperial influence: the symbol of the power of violence was revealed right in front of a mayor religious site and the transcendental symbol was placed to neutralise the complex scientific/engineering/industrial structure, symbolised by of the train station. Furthermore, the two sculptures not only echoed power within Ethiopia but they also revealed external power struggles, notably relation with Italy. This potential coloniser had already attempted to occupy Ethiopia during the first Italo-Ethiopian war of 1885-1886. Their effectiveness is reflected in the fact that fascist government in Rome refuses to allow the Ethiopian royal court to commission an Italian artist for the Menelik sculpture, in order to avoid any reference, however indirect, to the battle of Adoua (March 1, 1896) during which Menelik lead his troupes to a stunning victory over the Italian forces. The Lion of Judah sculpture was stolen by Italian troupes at the end of the second Italo-Ethiopian war in 1935 and transported to Rome. It was installed on May 8, 1937 at the foot of the monument commemorating Italian losses at the Battle of Dogali. Nevertheless, the sculpture conserved its symbolism in its role as a hostage or as war booty in Rome. This force was underlined in a spectacular way on June 15, 1938 in an event involving Zerai Deres, an Eritrean translator who served the Ethiopian aristocrats deported to Rome.

The event has been narrated in several different ways, notably concerning the reason why Deres found himself in front of the sculpture and what ensued.  According to the heroical version of events, he was seized and shot on the spot but he was actually arrested and brought to the psychiatric hospital in Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto in Sicily where he died 7 years later. All accounts of the event recount that Deres went down on his knees in deference to the statue and that he brandished a ceremonial sword, shouting out condemnation of Italian colonisation and fascism. In 1966, the monument was returned to Ethiopia and placed on its original pedestal. The Emperor took part in the ceremony wearing a military uniform in honour of Zerai Deres.

A second stage was marked by the Emperor’s commission of a modern version of the Lion of Judah to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his coronation. This second Lion was to be installed in front of the National Theatre in Addis Abeba, newly extended to celebrate the same event. The commission went to the French sculptor and architect Maurice Calka.

Two significant anecdotes are linked to this commission. The first story as told by Calka relates that during the presentation of the maquette, the Emperor asked him if it was “modern”. When Calka acquiesced, the Emperor said that was exactly what he wanted. The second story relates that the entourage of the Emperor was concerned by the lack of physical resemblance of Calka’s sculpture to an actual lion. The Emperor is said to have replied although the sculpture actually looked like a poodle its price made it a lion.

These two anecdotes suggest that the Emperor cared little for the sculpture itself. He seemed only interested in its inherent capacity to materialise his modernisation of Ethiopia, linking it to a way of life and of statehood defined in the 1950’s and 1960’s exclusively by the West.

By placing the Calka lion in front of the newly extended National Theatre, it  was not only given vast physical space: by connecting a historical and transcendental symbol of power represented in a modern form to a newly enlarged national cultural institution, the anchoring of Ethiopia in modernity was also designated as a core effort of national power and as central to its raison d’etat. The fact that the Emperor himself did not particularly relate to the form of culture he had brought to the country but only to the possibility of linking it to “modernity” is important in as much as it shows that the Emperor’s acceptance, (and probably that of the Ethiopian population) of the sculpture as a work of art is of no importance what so ever. This implies that the sculpture is exclusively meant to be a message to the “modern” Western world.

A third importation of the concept of realistic figurative representation and autonomous visual art took place after the coup d’état and death of Haile Selassie in 1974. The DERG and the successor to Haile Selassie, Mengistu Haile Mariam who ruled from 1975 to 1991 sent young people from Ethiopia to various countries, members of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), to study art. These students were thoroughly indoctrinated in the view that social realism was the sole acceptable artistic discipline, and that it should be the definition of visual art.

With support from their totalitarian government, the art students were able to impose socialist realism as the sole artistic doctrine, while minimally adapting it to an African environment. Because these same students are now the art teachers in Ethiopia’s art school and they constitute the majority of official artists, the predominance of their doctrine is assured.

If I accept the analysis of the concept of autonomous visual art in Ethiopia as a tool of cultural colonisation of a country by its government, and that it is directly linked to the concept of pure power, all gestures, events or discourses which use the concept of autonomous visual art as a reference are conditioned by it. This also meant that the master’s program to which I was invited was inscribed in this conditioning, especially in the realm of my specialty: intervention in public and social artistic spaces. So, my invitation to Addis Ababa, the workshop I was meant to lead, the questions I wished to ask and the projects I wished to undertake were all subject to this conditioning.

Furthermore, if autonomous visual art by which I mean adhering to the principle of questioning and open to debate, is directly governed or linked to power structures, which implicitly provide answers and solutions, then art will be neutralised. My stay in Ethiopia and my artistic action would be devoid of their very substance.

If, despite the above-mentioned, I still wish to act, then I can only turn my analysis inside out like a sock and counter each blocking argument and every reservation, transforming them into creative space or material.

An artistic gesture for the urban space of Addis Ababa would need to take the function of art as the act of a coloniser, structurally and historically at odds with its environment. For an artistic gesture to materially exist within the city, it would need to avoid all contact with it. The presence of a work should be a purely spatial hold upon the city, just another congestion of the metropolis with no additional meaning for the urban structure of Addis Ababa. This congestion should mirror the city by being massive.

I decided to use the city as the location in the same fashion that all other activity in the city seemed to be carried out: by occupying consumable space. In this way my work could be both massive and perfectly integrated in the urban fabric to become a societal reality:

The Riba Cantu district is located in the centre of Addis Ababa. Historically, it is a densely populated zone with intense economic activity and a high crime rate. Recently, the entire neighbourhood was evacuated. All lodgements were razed, and the zone was closed off. I chose this area for my piece. As long as the zone remains empty, the neighbourhood will be outlined by a series of poles. These poles are connected by an uninterrupted elevated tube in the form of a U that follows the contours of the delimitated area. This railing is mounted with enormous projectors oriented towards the sky and placed at regular intervals along the semi-circle. When lit, the projectors create a line of light contouring the form of the Riba Cantu neighbourhood, diffusing its outline into the sky.

The poles, which hold the lighting system, are 300 m high in order to surpass the highest point of the city as compared to the tallest building at the point of highest elevation in the city. The spotlights placed in a U along the supporting rail are oriented to only light above, not below. In this way, the lighting system will have no impact on the city’s residents, nor will the line of light in the sky. Their presence in the city will merely reinforce the congestion with the addition of poles and the supporting structure. The contours of the light lines will only be understood from an aerial perspective from flights in and out of the city. The presence of the piece will be conveyed mainly in terms of the media coverage of its installation and will thus exist by means of importation.

When the neighbourhood is reopened, the piece will be removed.