Yikunoeamlak is a graphics designer and architect based in Ethiopia. He began his creative work at the EiABC in Ethiopia, where he graduated with an architecture degree. He is currently running a business, Ge’ez fonts. This business focuses on modernizing and diversifying Ethiopian visual art in the digital world with a special focus on typography. The Getz Team reached to Yikunoamlak to find about more about him and the work he does.
Ethiopic Fonts: Ge’ez Fonts The Beginning
When we were in school, while working on both class and personal projects, I found a limited set of fonts available. Both in style and number. And most of the time they simply wouldn’t work, so I started creating my fonts. You need appropriate types of styles that can push your content forward. It helps to reinforce your message visually. That’s where the idea started. This naturally led me to the question, the rest of the world is constantly updating its fonts and using them as major design elements. why not us? Sure we have Ethiopian fonts available, largely thanks to Ethiopian creatives like Dr.Aberra Molla, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t update them. I’d say it’s this desire to keep the uniqueness of the Ethiopian alphabet going and providing new ways of seeing it that created Ge’ez Fonts.
I usually start by looking at the past and analyzing how people used to write. I studied the aesthetics of the lettering and try to understand how they developed. I try to incorporate these special elements to communicate a little bit of the history, the people that created these alphabets, and a little bit of myself. Although we don’t code anymore, font creation is still a complex and time-consuming task. Contrary to popular belief, it is not done with just the push of a button.
Although modern technology has made it easier, it’s still a complicated process. Just to have a working keyboard on a phone we need to create over 600 glyphs each designed and drawn individually which takes a lot of patience and dedication. Not everyone can do that. Once they’re done and you see people using them it’s worth it.
Typography in Ethiopia is a relatively old art form. Like any alphabet, geez is rooted in ancient history. It first started as something the scribes did when they wrote with ink on animal skin and then evolved when technology was introduced. Ato Yigezu Bisrat, who in large parts, brought the art form forward, promoted it through various books and exhibitions. I think the art form has been in arrested development. Even the modern stuff we use today are from him. I think it’s sad that we don’t acknowledge the people that give so much to our lives. Moreover, the lack of organized support that can help the development of the medium and the artists developing it is also another major issue.
In the beginning, I had no plans to turn a profit, but when people saw and appreciated my work, I saw that there was a gap in the market. People didn’t want to use what was just available, like any other sector, people wanted specificity and diversity. However, unlike other businesses, since this is design and art in a digital medium, people assume that it just happens and that I don’t put in any effort and therefore should get it for free. It’s not an easy world. People want your product; they can pay for it (in my case) but they either don’t have the awareness or don’t consider digital art as something that requires effort, something that has value. Though that’s not always the case, for instance working with Ye Ethiopia Lejoch was great and inspiring. I created the font for the program and was greeted positively. It helped me do more. But that’s also because I’m more of a creative than a businessman. I tend not to focus on it and push myself as an artist. Moreover, appreciation for the(any) artform grows as the society grows, we’re not at the level where we can be comfortable but we are getting there.
Evolution of Art
Ethiopian typography has, for the most part, stayed stagnant. There’s no digital foundry for it, there’s no government support. Any move that’s being made is largely by individual artists and that usually doesn’t last because we are forced to prioritize, we all have jobs, we all have to eat, and can’t give it our complete attention. In the past, there were efforts to innovate in the medium even though it was hand-drawn. It was digitized for the first time by Dr. Abera Molla, since then for the most part we haven’t seen major advances.
Art evolves when people carry it forward with authenticity. Largely, it is a mixture of three things. Technology, Inspiration, and history. When attempting to update something though, care must be taken not to discount the past and its evolution. We must rather see what history has to teach us and carefully differentiate what to keep and what to change, all while adding a personal touch.
However, people often see updating something as replacing it. It’s this type of opinion that keeps us from carrying things forward. People need to understand that change is natural and it is possible to update something and retain its identity. It is that identity after all that makes something feel unique and cultured.
I sometimes feel that we think that art has always existed in its current state. But that is not the case. It is something that is the result of change and reflects the state of a specific generation. For instance, the Ge’ez letters only used the primary alphabets. It wasn’t until Abba Salama mixed it with other languages that the vowels’ pronunciations were written. Seeing art, as a monolith is ultimately pointless. If you keep using art the same way to express the same thing then nobody has grown or changed.
Art is an answer to the change around it, an expression, and a crucial part of a culture. It shouldn’t remain constant. Change is inevitable, the question is are we leading the change, or is the change forced upon us.
The biggest problem I see in Ethiopia is an almost dismissive attitude towards people engaged in the creative sector. Not a lot of people ask who made this font? Who made this content? Is it legal for me to just download and use this? The artist creates something people need and sometimes, people don’t acknowledge the effort behind them. It’s sad.
Artists also tend to borrow from each other. We’re not really a collaborative bunch. It’s rare for people to work together and come out unscathed. It’s not always the case but it happens enough times for it to be a problem.
We are also very niche. Currently, the industry is centered on a few circles in major cities. It’s not something that’s extended to the masses. And that’s something that won’t work long term. If you think of Hollywood for instance, at first it was a costly endeavor. It had to be. But with proper support from the public, businesses, and the government it became one of the biggest businesses in the world.
I think what Ethiopian creatives need right now is organized support where it matters. Not workshops, conferences where we’re just publicity stunts for propaganda and forgotten the next day. But proper organized support to push art and the creative sector into the mainstream. Otherwise, our identities and cultures might remain forgotten. If there’s a sector that can push the diverse cultures we have to the rest of the world it’s us. The creatives are here but the industry can’t simply become great overnight. It’s about a collaboration between creatives to create content that matters and proper support from businesses and government bodies. That’s how, I think, change can come.