By Joey Tyson Since opening in 2016, Addis Fine Art has gone from being the first white space gallery in Ethiopia, to an internationally recognised art house. Its goal is simple: give Ethiopian and diaspora artists a platform to showcase their works beyond Africa. Recently hailed as one of the most important young galleries in the world by online art platform Artsy, Culture Trip speaks to Mesai Haileleul, the gallery’s co-founder, about its mission to make contemporary and modern Ethiopian art a household name.
It’s a typically frenetic Saturday afternoon in Bole, Addis Ababa’s vibrant entertainment district. Ethiopian pop music blares out of a nearby arcade as the infamous traffic crawls past. The cafés around Edna Mall are packed with macchiato-sipping twenty-somethings; the streets are busy with people in flux. Just one street back, along an unassuming, dusty road, it’s a different story altogether. Hidden away from the crowds, Addis Fine Art sits on the third floor of a pink tower block. It’s one of Africa’s most exciting galleries, but much like Ethiopia’s contemporary art scene, it’s easy to miss if you don’t know where to look.
The idea for a gallery space came about when Rakeb Sile, a London-based art collector and businesswoman, grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of Ethiopian representation. In 2013, her ambition led her to Los Angeles, where Haileleul, a veteran collector and exhibitor, was living. Haileleul had run a series of pop-ups and a small gallery, with a focus on Ethiopian contemporary and modern art. A trip home would be the source of his inspiration. After 18 years away, he found a very different country to the one he left: almost three decades under rigid communist rule and horrific famine had left Ethiopia shattered, so discovering a thriving art scene was a surprise to Haileleul.
“I came back in 1992. Thereafter, I was spending a lot of time with Ethiopian artists,” he says. “I was visiting studios and a friend of mine was taking me around… I was amazed by the talent.”