Art, Ecology and Architecture in Ethiopia: The Harla Conversations

Thursday 13 January 2010

After some kind of an ordeal of a journey I arrived alive and kicking in Addis Ababa. Due to a series of unforeseen circumstances (the details of which I spare the reader) I left Huntly before the crack of dawn, flew from Aberdeen to Amsterdam where I missed my connection, got rescheduled to London, where the plane to Nairobi was delayed, got to Nairobi only to be told that I missed the next connection but that I can go some 12 hours later via Djibouti to Addis. Djibouti! I am thinking all day, do I know anything about that place – it’s a port, the Bader Meinhoff group hijacked a Lufthansa plane in the 70ies in Djibouti which then was invaded by the special Unit GSG9… I can’t think of more, oh yes, they speak French. I think there are some links with the French legionnaires étrangers?

Anyway, Kenya Airways kindly furnished me with a nice wee hotel room in down town Nairobi where I caught up with a couple of hours sleep and then had some lunch with ugali and cooked goat. I made the most of it and looked around Nairobi, it was a bit like a homecoming, some things have changed, others just looked the same like when I lived there for a spell in the mid 1980ies. I made a short visit to the National Museum, where they had a good summary of Kenyan history, including the 1990 riots, than saw the grand mosque and the market where I got some Obama kangas for back home. The city really felt on the up, people where in their ever good mood and loved testing out the remnants of my Kiswahili with me. David, the nice KA taxi driver told me that the crime level has reduced considerably, which if he is right would make the city a great place to live. Crime began to be a great worry when I lived there.

Saturday, 15 January

Unbelievable but true, I arrived in Addis an hour early, but Teddy my pick up came soon after I left the security controls and took me to the ZOMA Contemporary Art Centre, designed and built by artist Elias Sime. Got a good sleep and then met two of my other workshop companions Pauline Burmann a director of the Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam and Vera Tollmann, a freelance art and environment consultant from Berlin (the other workshop members that joined us later were: Zoma Wallace – an arts curator from Washington DC; Wanja Kimani – an artist from London/Nairobi, Ahmed Zekaria, a museum specialist affiliated to the institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis University and Dawit Benti an architect interested in sustainable housing). We got picked up to go to Kaldi’s coffee house a Starbucks look alike with delicious Ethiopian coffee, mango juice and croissants, i.e. the world is in order again. A quick tour around the city showed I have completely lost my bearings (the guide book tells me that many of the streets may have 3 names, like people may call it Hailes Elassie Avenue, but the road sign says Mengistu Avenue and the map again calls it Revolutionary Avenue…!). Hence I give up quickly and hand myself over to our driver.

I change into my outfit from Ahmedabad and we go to the opening of the exhibition Ants and Ceramicists which takes place in four cultural institutes. After taking in a quick lunch, where we also meet another travel companion Wanja an artist that lives in London and Nairobi. We start the exhibition tour at the British Council. The exhibition is curated by Meskerem Assegued who is also our host, and all the work was made by Elias Sime. The work brings old and new together playing like ants on human’s obsessive business with things, making, accumulating and disposing them. As seen from a bird’s eyes view it’s like the ongoing production of ants. What’s happening to all the stuff that we produce? Amassed things like redundant plastic slippers in the British Council juxtaposed with a collage of coins on body, clay pots in the Goethe Institute, scrap boards of computer chips in the Italian Institute and masses of wired ants in the French, come together to one highly organized hotchpotch of things. Remnants of industry gadgets and carefully handmade household item join law and order in what seems cluttered left over at first sight.

I am thinking of the meaning of having the show in the four cultural institutes. Is it purely practical due to the lack of other venues or potential for sponsorship or support, or does it lend meaning that we are traveling like ants from place to place in a greatly amassed group of people from all cultures.

What I have not told yet is that we were given tea and shortbread at the British Council, sausage and beer at the Goethe, pizza at the Italian and – yes you guessed it – wine and cheese at the French… But then almost everybody that knows me, knows that I like kitsch and don’t fear stereotypes. Here they certainly added to the meaning and ambience of Ants and Ceramicists. And … to get there we were driven around by a double-decker bus (Q: lets guess who sponsored that?).

At the end of the day we went to a great wee restaurant. We had Injira the traditional Ethiopian dish a kind of giant rubbery pancake with all kind of delicacies meat and vegetarian that one eats together, all from one plate by rolling up the pancake from the side.  This was accompanied by traditional music and dancing with quite mesmerizing movements. Thanks to Meskerem and Elias for a great day.

Sunday 16 January

We got an early pick up to go to the MERCATO, which my guidebook describes as the largest market in Africa. Because it is Sunday, it is officially closed, but still busy enough for us novices; we quickly adopt an older man who has worked a long time in Djibouti and guides us around the market. This way we saw some of the hidden gems and I bought some coffee, frankincense and handmade paper bags from children, After another lunch visit to Kaldi’s we go to ASNI village where we meet a number of artists who work here. They have laid on slide presentations of their work. The artist I am most taken by is Meredith X, a young woman who has already worked in Palestine and who did a fascinating project asking people to swap their old shoe strings with new ones.

In the evening we go to the Gion Hotel, where there is an international music festival with a good mix of Ethiopian and world beats. We round the evening off with a visit to the Hilton, where we buy stamps and get a shot at the internet to tell our beloved ones we are still alive.

Monday 17 January

The pickup is at 5am, to fetch the 7 o’clock flight to Dire Dawa. Breakfast awaits us in the hotel there with the local delicacy fatira (a kind of stuffed pancake with egg and honey) and my beloved Mango juice. From there the adventure begins and we go to ZOMA Harla, a small village ca 20km away on the road to Hadar, where Meskerem is setting up an ecologically sound artist in residence space. The village I am told has some 3000 inhabitants (but I think it must mean village and administrative surrounding), it sports 2 shops (one has Pepsi the other Coca Cola) and a school. The area is very rich in cultural heritage, but to date largely undescribed and recorded. People live of subsistence farming, and some cash crop (coffee and Chatt – a hallucinating greenery that is chewed by men and women and highly sought after for export). Meskerem shows us the house she has renovated with great care, using local materials only. We learn about the building qualities of cactus juice, which acts like cement when mixed with clay and lime.

After lunch in Meskerem’s house in Dire Dawa we go back to Harla and have our first discussion. The conversation at first was a bit discursive, but after some difficulties on where to start – it became quickly clear – that we cant solve the world in three days – we decided to focus on Harla, which in itself is one of the very few ecologically intact inhabited places in our world. There is no electricity here, people wear second hand clothes and buildings are minimal and functional as are all other materials. Simply no superfluous gadgets in sight. This provides us with a good context and starting point for an ecologically sustainable center to work from.

At night – back in the hotel – I managed to skype with Nick and attend to my 100+ accumulated emails.

Tuesday 18 January

In the morning we went to the ancient cave paintings along a very narrow rocky road, which took about an hour with a 4×4 car. We split the group into 3 parties each of them discussing one of the key topics of the Harla concept: Community – Environment/Architecture – Art: Organisation and Vision. This proofed a very effective way forward, both in terms of time management as well as in terms of moving on the discussion. I shared the car with Zoma and Wanja, but we were also lucky enough to have the Head of Tourism of the region with us, who provided us with viable information. En route we passed a school and a police check point, numerous mud hut settlements and some interesting bird life.

The majority of the people here are Oromos; Oromo has only been given a written language in 1995. In contrast to the rest of the country (which uses Amharic as a script) Oromo is based on our Latin script.

In the afternoon we drove to Harar, a most interesting ancient walled city with UNESCO world heritage status. On the way we came through the town of Aweday which seems to flourish due to its half black, half tolerated Chatt market. The turnover here both in goods as in money we are told is phenomenal (I was given some amazing figures, but won’t quote them here, as I am not sure how reliable they are). On arrival in Harar, we saw an Epiphany procession, a very beautiful event with people dressed totally in white and lots of drums and other musical instruments walking on a city long red carpet covered with palm tree leaves. Epiphany replaces Christmas in Ethiopia, interesting also that it is almost a fortnight later then our Epiphany (6 Jan) like the whole of the Ethiopian calendar. Just to confuse the issue, the time is 6 hours back (they start counting the day at 6am), the years 7 years back and the months are 13 (12 of 30 days each and another very short one) – apparently this is due to the fact that Ethiopia has never changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one.

Ha r is a mostly Muslim community with the old town surrounded by 5 meter walls built in the 16th Century.  Inside the walls are 368 alleyways squeezed into 1 square kilometer with 82 small mosques, tombs, shrines, and traditional Harari (Adare) Houses. Harar one can only enter by foot, the alley ways are so narrow. The interior reminds one of a very medieval town where traders of all sorts are bustling along the alley ways: basket makers, tailors, silver smiths, fruit and spice sellers. We visited the Hailes Selassie museum (the emperor came from here) and Arthur Rimbaud’s house ( the writer stayed here for many years) and then we went to our most wonderful guest house, an old Adare house which is covered with household items such as pots, pans, baskets and colourful enamel. Here I showed my Deveron Arts slides to my co-travellers, which fitted well in the context of the Harla conversations. And now one of the ‘highlights’ came: we went for a visit to the hyenas. Outside the town gates a kind of shaman is attracting every night around dusk a dozen or so hyenas to the town, after they were fed a bit of meet, they are requested to roam the town for left over food and thereby clean up. I must say, I was deeply suspicious if not frightened of the whole exercise (especially after Phyllis our lovely Huntly travel nurse urged me to get my rabies vaccination if I keep on traveling to these kind of countries).

After a quick meal in a nice wee restaurant we went back to the guesthouse and tried to bring our discussions to paper. Things nicely came together under the overall umbrella of sustainability (community, art and environment).

Meskerem, Pauline and I stayed in the center of the guesthouse among the many household paraphernalia and had a very sound and cozy sleep under the mosquito net.

Wednesday 19 January

Got up nice and early and had again the wonderful ‘fatira’ for breakfast. By 9 am we were on the road to Dire Dawa to catch our flight back to Addis. On the way we passed by Harla in the hope to discover the much discussed ‘chinese coin’; sadly the person who apparently had it, was not there. But Ahmed has good hope to find it one day, which would put a very different slant onto the history of the place. At this point it might be worth mentioning that the Chinese are putting a lot of development aid and commercial activity into Ethiopia, which whether one likes it or not by far exceeds western development activity; they for example are fixing the railway from Addis Abeba to Djibouti and are building a new mega dam to supply electricity for the country.

The flight back to Addis went smoothly and back at ZOMA Addis we continued our talks by bringing together all the points of the three discursive discussions. At this point Meskarem also explained the history of Harla, and actually why Harla? It became clear that she had done some anthropological research there and this way became acquainted with the villagers, who gave her the land. She hired the house which she has done up in a traditional way; so it in the meantime can serve as a basic artist in residence place.  Her plans are to bring architects and artists together to build the workshops and living accommodations over the coming year. The Goethe Institute and Heinrich Böll Foundation seem to have already made some commitment towards this.

After a meal in an Indian restaurant we fetched some beer to drink at our lovely courtyard at ZOMA.

Thursday 20 January

We started the morning with lovely freshly squeezed orange juice (the juices are by the way a real treat here: mango, papaya, etc – just heavenly). Pauline and I had a quite emotional discussion on the steps of the courtyard about arts management, and all the things that come with it: board, payment, work load management and so on. Often one has to take stock and see whether the way we are working is still the way we want to be working, whether it is still effective, whether we still like it or whether we are actually still valued.

The morning was spent making a SWOT analysis, a powerpoint presentation for the evening at the British Council and tying all the loose ends together of the talk. We divide the talk up, and I had the share about community – talking about a bottom up approach which can only be realized in a place like Harla, where sustainability is still an unprecedented reality. Matching this with a sensitive approach towards development is the challenge. This was complemented by Wanja talking about the role of children, their dreams, abilities and prospects could be the guiding leitmotif for Harla’s work.

The talk at the British Council went really well. A very interesting crowd made up of artists, journalists development workers, historians diplomats was discussing the prospects of such a development as ZOMA Harla, and no minute was spared to cut the discussions short. It could have gone on into late at night…

Elke Kaschl from the Goethe Institute has organized a last supper at a marvelously situated restaurant overlooking the whole of Addis. It was quite emotional when I had to hold the farewell toast and thanks a few minutes before I had to take the taxi back to the airport to embark on my flight back to Aberdeen  via Khartoum and Amsterdam ( this time without any major troubles, Deveron taxis was waiting for me in the morning). It was nice to see my colleagues and Nick again and tell them all about my wonderful new experiences, acquaintances and learnings.

Thanks to:

Pauline Burmann for being such an inspiring resource on African artists, I am looking forward to working with her in the future, we will start with her in a Shadow Curator role for the Baudouin Mouanda project.

Vera Tollmann,for giving us so much insight in the art and environment discourse. I see you soon in Berlin to look at the great greenhouse on the roof in Wedding.

Ahmed Zekaria for providing us invaluable background in Ethiopian history in particular about Harla and Harar.

Dawit Benti for loads of inspirations about sustainable building – a necessary ingredient for the success of ZOMA Harla.

Wanja Kimani for being so much fun,supplying so good photos and considering to come to Huntly as an intern, it would be great.

Zoma Wallace for great intellectual inspiration, and doing such a brilliant job in writing the discussions up where would we have started otherwise?).

June Wallace for all the invaluable background work with documenting the discussions.

Elias Sime for a wonderful exhibition at the four cultural institutes; especially the work at the Italian cultural Institute will be hard to forget.

British Council for allowing me to visit Ethiopia and attend the Harla talks. Special thanks to Barbara and Meron.

My husband Nick and my colleague Anna for letting me go.

And above all: Meskerem, the powerhouse who brought it all together. You deserve all the support you can get to bring this unique project off the ground.

Thank you all. I hope to come back before long; next time with Nick to discover all the wonderful mountains of Ethiopia and revisit Harla and Harar.

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