As I am still on the move, I want to quickly share my experience so far of Addis and the First Addis Ababa Foto Fest a.k.a AFF. I arrived in Addis Ababa on the evening of the 4th of December 2010, flying five hours from Lagos with Ethiopian Airlines. It was a smooth journey, and when I arrived at the Bole International airport, the immigration routines where not at all complicated and in a few minutes I was already at the arrival area. Suddenly, I spotted Aida Muluneh!
Now, about Aida Muluneh: she is one of the most energetic and positive-thinking photographer and artist I have ever met, with a warm outlook and a charming smile. When I first met Aida, it was in Paris and my first impression was “here is the young woman with so much energy to let out”. We discussed projects; what was wrong with the African art scene and what ought to be done, this was in 2007. One thing about such conversations of long hours in a bar over pints beer is that most of the issues discussed never leave the bar how much more being realised. We discussed issues such as putting Ethiopia on the photographic map, as well as initiating an African Photographers association. But today, I am proud to say that Aida with an indomitable energy in collaboration with an equally positive team of Ethiopian, French and German administrators was able make the First Addis Ababa Foto Fest a dream come true.
Before that she had founded an association called Desta for Africa whose major motive is to promote education and awareness through art across Ethiopia and Africa in collaboration with other continents of the world. Under this platform, emerging Ethiopian photographers have been discovered through locally initiated workshops and master classes as well as international exchanges of which worthy of mentioning is the two-way exchange between Ethiopian photographers from Desta Africa and German students coordinated by Aida Muluneh and Eva Maria Ocherbauer an Austrian artist residing in Berlin. Aida is the founder and curator of the Addis Foto Fest 2010 and prior to the festival she was appointed the director of The Debre Kristos Desta Centre Museum, also known as The Modern Art Museum of Addis Ababa.
Aida and I hugged warmly and as expected she was like “I told you I will bring you to Addis! Welcome to Addis!” On the drive into the city, through Bole Road, we spotted billboards announcing the festival, but that was only the first and the least of many surprises to follow. The next day, I was opportuned to meet with Thomas Tschiggfrey, the production manager of the Foto Fest. He is of a recommendable drive, always on the move, never at one place, constantly on phone calls and behind the wheels. He is French, but his dedication on the contrary was completely unpretentious. Through him, I discovered the organisational scale of the festival. He took me around the city from one venue to the other. The office of the Festival is situated at a compatible space at the building of the Goethe Institut of Addis Ababa and consist of dedicated team of about eleven staff and some volunteers from the University. What immediately struck me was the efficiency in organisation, every little detail is sorted out. Now this might sound to some people as something easy, but if you have ever organised an event, then you already know that you are most likely to pay a big price for the neglect of the tiniest details, everything is linked from the smallest to the most obvious.
I was completely amazed at the fluidity that exists between Aida and the rest of the team. The first thing one prepares for in big events such as this is the inevitability of obstacles and how to scale through them. As I observe from Aida to the rest of the team, they sure had found ways to work around differences and obstacles. The general impression one perceives is that all hands are on deck. The passion was too explosive to go unnoticed. But even at that, the atmosphere was relaxed as if all effort takes place latently to reveal an extraordinary outward outcome.
In terms of content, the result was equally at every inch powerful and inspiring. The overall selection is as if Aida as the curator takes her departure point from unveiling an aspect of the history of Ethiopia in its most representative and comprehensive form, introducing Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian photographers whose works in the past and present is a reference to a certain era or situation in the history of Ethiopia and Africa including the Diasporas. An aspect of the festival centered on an in situ residency program and master class, with artists arriving three weeks before the festival in order to create works in the city and conduct workshops with local photographers. Artists involved in this segment are Akinbode Akinbiyi, the Nigerian photographer residing in Berlin, Yoyo Gonthier, from La Renion based in Paris and Dawit L. Petros from Eritrea and Canada, living in New York.
The Goethe Institut continued their tradition of the portfolio review which unites photographers and curators from Africa and beyond in an interactive session. It is usually called “closed portfolio review” in the sense that it is specific to those artists and curators invited by the Goethe Instut, but the influx of these artists and curators gave the festival a much more substantial trans-African, stroke International feel. It also featured the works of famous photographers such as Dudley M. Brooks and Jamel Shabazz, from the United states. Jamel, a very jovial and passionate man was constantly impressed by the energy around owing mostly to the fact that it was his first time in Africa. At 50, he radiates an air of humility that personally inspires me, he kept referring to Addis Ababa and the Photo Festival as a one-in-a-lifetime experience, and admitted more than once that he has been deeply inspired by the works and people he encountered. Dudley’s works were of the tragedy of the Haiti hurricanes, impressive black and white images with chilling undertones.
I could go on and on about how this festival being the first with its challenges supersedes previous mega-budget projects which I have been part of. But then, this article will no longer be what it was meant to be namely, a chip of the iceberg. It suffices to say that in this festival, I witnessed the future of Africa, for the first time I realised that African artists are beginning to own their creation and its processes. There is now a sense of consciousness in the artistic endeavours; the works on display rightly indicated that though one may still talk about western influences (in as much as we can talk of African influences in equal terms) the thought processes and artistic language has been mastered in such a way as it propagates an indigenous message and deal with questions that are Africa-oriented. They are no longer creations meant solely for export; they are home-made and could exclusively be consumed by those at home.
Another aspect which should not be considered the least is how the festival was able to inculcate the indigenes of Addis Ababa with the idea of the event so much that three-quarter of the attendees of every opening were made up of students and inhabitants of Addis Ababa. This, for me was one of the greatest achievements, coupled with the fact that they also managed to garner the support of the government and local enterprises.
The Addis Foto Fest is an example of how we ought to proceed in modest but very impactful endeavours if indeed we want to succeed. It is much better to expend our energy on small and realistic projects whose impact could be far more reaching due to its concept and approach, than in big projects which again are a carry-over of the caricature embedded in the status quo. When I say this, my thoughts swiftly relates to the 3rd World Festival of Black Arts taking place presently in Dakar of which I am also a part of. Millions of dollars have been spent in organising this gigantic event, yet it feels as if it offers nothing new talk more of an alternative to what has already been the norm in artistic practices in Africa. In this 21st century, it is not enough to throw money around in the name of projects, for that will be tantamount to throwing money away, which beyond doubt could be considered of limited supply compared to all the problems saddling the continent. We ought to employ strategies that consider tangible approaches of tracing and solving problems which the stunted growth of art in Africa can be attributed to.
Cover Photo: Tom Saater