“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.”
From London to Addis and back
With his connections in Africa and abroad, Haileleul was the obvious man to help. The pair had some initial success with a temporary gallery space in London, but soon agreed that if they were going to represent Ethiopian art, they’d need a space in East Africa.
“I spent most of 2014 trying to see if it was even possible. To see what it would take to open a gallery, not just a space here in Addis, but an international gallery that could link up with people outside of Ethiopia,” Haileleul says.
In 2016, a permanent gallery opened its doors, supported by a temporary space in London shortly after. The gallery spanned two continents, acting as a bridge to the international art community. “We could offer this connection with the outside world – the international art market. We are the first real gallery to have done that in the history of this country, which is crazy,” he says.
These connections have proven to be invaluable – just six weeks after opening, Addis Fine Art found itself at the Armory Show in New York, a major coup for a relatively young, unheard-of gallery. The gallery has since displayed at huge fairs in Dubai, London, Paris, Johannesburg and Lagos. In a short space of time, it has shot to the forefront of the African art scene.
“The main goal is to help Ethiopian artists get more international exposure,” says Haileleul. “It’s the process of building a bridge. That means, at times, showing works in our space, but more importantly, getting the work into the big, important international fairs.”
Troubles at home
Unfortunately, giving Ethiopian artists an international platform is only half the challenge: there are obstacles at home, too. The biggest issue is tax – there’s currently a hefty 30 percent income tax on an artist’s earnings – not to mention the many, confusing legislative hoops they must jump through.
“They’re not accountants,” laughs Haileleul. “If you want to operate here legally as an artist, the tax issue is really very discouraging.” Setting up a business is also far from easy, a problem that stems from the way artists are taxed – there’s no differentiation between the art and manufacturing sectors, for example. Making this distinction is crucial if artists are to flourish in Ethiopia.
For its Ethiopian-based artists – around half of the 15 on its books – Addis Fine Art is much more than a white room in which to hang their works. It’s become an important bridge between the business and creative worlds.
“We have also become tax collectors,” jokes Haileleul. “We represent them so that everything is legal.” Effectively agents, the gallery handles the official side of things – transactions, receipts, tax, reporting to the right government bodies etc – so that the artists don’t have to. According to Haileleul, this allows the artists to focus on their work.
Haileleul hopes the international interest in Ethiopian art will sooner or later lead to meaningful change at home. It does seem as if the government is starting to come around.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, recognises the importance of the country’s culture sector – but concrete policy has yet to be passed.
A bright future for Ethiopian art
The next big step for Addis Fine Art will take place in London. The gallery’s UK-based team is growing fast, and a permanent gallery space looks set for spring 2020 – the location, Cromwell Place in Kensington, is already agreed.