Tell Me Something New | Ethiopian Creative Sector

The creative sector in Ethiopia is something that causes a lot of people pain. Both people that are on the outside looking in and those of us knee-deep in it. It sometimes feels like the creative sector is stagnant. Of course, it is unfair to say that there is no evolution but have we seen an art revolution that has achieved national impact? What about the parts of the sectors that have achieved success to a moderate level are they pushing others to reach their level?

For any sector to be successful, it needs to be sustainable, and for that to happen the sector needs well-structured support that doesn’t turn it into a giant funding baby, and for support to happen the sector would need to generate enough buzz and support from the society at large. It’s a strange and painful cycle.

1) Everyone deserves support… unless you’re an artist

In the imperial days, almost every sector had some sort of systemic support. Government organizations tended to send people abroad to study various fields in the hopes of transferring knowledge to the country. While the creative sector (which was still at an infancy stage but better in many ways) had patrons. Patrons that consistently supported artists to make art for the sake of art. That was the major form of support artists got at the time. When things shifted and as governments changed the importance of the artists has largely diminished and in some ways regressed. This has resulted in a large gap that is yet to be filled.

The artist is either stuck in trying to succeed without support or tries to find work in other intersecting industries. Usually designing logos, copywriting. When joining these industries they are using their skills as an artist to perform on the job but are also left to go by the clients’ whim.

To put the problem into context, given the large amounts being spent on ads and the number of artists working in that field how many quality ads do you see? That was a rhetorical question. It doesn’t take a genius to see what happened behind the scenes and that the “better” client approved version won. This annoying phenomenon (to put it mildly) often force artists to be complacent and only answer to the demands of the ever so changing market. But more than that, it has created an industry where artists are given an either-or scenario, where they’re forced to do work that doesn’t help them evolve or give up and starve. Sure, you can say that for every NAME REDACTED, there is a NAME REDACTED but then again how many NAME REDACTED’S are enough?

On the NGO side, there are great efforts in supporting artists at the individual level and often at the institutional level. But, oftentimes we see people that aren’t ahem… well-intentioned accessing these opportunities and wasting them on what makes the entire Ethiopian creative sector look like a vanity project. This forces donors to ask the question; is investing in culture and arts is even worth it? But we ask if the chosen interventions are even getting heard by the right people and even more so if these interventions are designed with the voices of Ethiopian creatives in consideration to begin with.

That’s just on the private sector, on the government end, things were hopeless but at present, we are seeing glimmers of hope. The jobs creation commission has recently identified the creative sector as a major source of jobs and has formally recognized the sector as a solution to youth unemployment. Which is a great thing. This means, policies will be drafted (if they aren’t already drafted) and funds will formally be directed to our sector. Given the current socio-political status of the country, the anticipation is met with reasonable pessimism.

2) Building things that last

The road to failure is paved with great ideas and nothing else. While support is important and continuous support goes a long way in making things sustainable. It’s not the only thing that will make things sustainable. Do we get continuous support or should we always expect it? No on both counts.

The creative sector is riddled with problems but the central one is how artists enter the arena and their intentions. It’s great to treat creative work as a business, and competition is healthy and exciting. However, when we price our projects(for say, something like logo designs) we often get excited at the prospects of working as an artist that we lose foresight. While some of us, usually super high up, tend to price projects cheap just to win the project. What we’re doing here is setting expectations at the macrolevel. We’re saying to employers “Yes we’ll do the work for that cheap”. Sure you might do it one time at that price but what happens when the price we keep setting becomes the norm? Can you keep doing the same projects at the same quality for a long amount of time and sustain it?

If you’re happy with that, great! Do you! But, we’ve said this before, the image of the starving artist is overrated. If the sector doesn’t learn to create a sustainable value system we’re not moving forward.

3) We live in a society… (annoyed face emoji)

The artist is, most of the time, at odds with society at large. Especially in a society like Ethiopia. At some point, you’ll say or do something that will offend the sensibilities of a group (even if they’re wrong) and that group will potentially, send you on a freefall towards oblivion. Unless you’re doing and saying just what they like. But then again, if somebody isn’t upset then you’re not really saying and doing anything new.

If you think about the best art from the past twenty years, somebody said something the people or some government entity didn’t like but they achieved some sort of recognition (or notoriety then fame) and carried their artform forward.

We’re either too afraid we’ll say something that will upset someone or we’re too busy trying to find things to say that’ll upset someone that we lose our most important currency. Our voice. What matters in art, next to talent, is our voice. That’s how art becomes authentic. Humans are inherently selfish (to paraphrase a great book favored by terrible people) and in that we find empathy. It is posited that people only care about something when they see themselves in the shoes of others. That’s also how great art is born. Not only do we make great art, but we also evolve it.

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