Friday, March 30, 2012

A Very Brief Summary of My Trip to Ethiopia Nov. 2011

This is the summary report that I finally completed. Last year I was awarded the Frances Kinnicutt Travel Grant from the Worcester Art Museum, and they funded my entire travel expenses to Ethiopia. Yes, ENTIRE. Pretty unheard of, and I am forever grateful for their support. I could not have swung it on our own for sure. I think most adoptive parents can relate to the emotional rollercoaster of being immersed in your child's birthculture and quite honestly, it has taken me four months to feel grounded again. Hmm, grounded is not the word though- I dont think there is one specific word that would describe it, but if you are an AP, I think you know what I mean.

My trip to Ethiopia in November has taken some time to process. While in Ethiopia, each day was more exciting and overwhelming than the last, and although I had arranged a few meetings with artists, other meetings seemed to have occurred out of sheer chance. It was my goal to be open to the way of life in Ethiopia for two short weeks- to be present to witness the beauty of a rich culture and people full of pride, to visit artists that are flourishing in Ethiopia and are committed to their craft, and to also be present to witness the injustices and hardship in the forms of severe poverty, lack of access to basic human needs, illness and subsistence living. This mixture of beauty, pride, and desperation has given me a broader, more truthful perspective
of Ethiopia- and I look forward to learning more and strengthening my relationships with Ethiopia, her artists and the larger community.

In September 2008, I travelled to Ethiopia for the first time to bring our then 4 ½ month old daughter home. My energy was of course focused on my daughter and her well-being. This short and intense time in Ethiopia birthed a new passion in my art, and since then, much of my art has been “Ethiopian inspired”. Over time however, as I continued to paint Ethiopian landscapes, I
began to feel “stuck” in a mental construct that was difficult for me to break from. I struggled with the idealized view of Ethiopia (I want my daughter to be proud of her Ethiopian heritage!) versus the harsh truths of how our child’s adoption (and others) came to be, and the subsequent losses that she will bear. This feeling is not born out of anger, rather, profound sadness. Sadness that consumed my thinking and painting, which I realized over time, was not healthy or helpful. Going to Ethiopia once again has allowed me to break free from this sadness- it has given me the chance to see beyond the stereotypes of how I perceive my daughter’s birth-country. To see a bit of life in Ethiopia over the two weeks helped me see beyond the veil of sadness and to witness the complexities of life in a very confusing world. I have seen my art change slowly- I am currently working on a few new pieces and feel a regained sense of movement in my work. I feel freer to explore other topics and take my Ethiopian inspired work in new directions.

My visits with artists ranged from a traditional religious iconographic artist to contemporary and abstract artists. Each artist was so unique in their work, but every single one had a definite Ethiopian flavor. Gebre Merha, a traditional iconographic artist was particularly interesting to
me since I am very interested in religious art and hidden meanings found within. Merha comes from a long line of iconographic artists in his family, originally from Axum, and his carved hand-painted pieces are truly spectacular. I was able to purchase a small triptych piece which I treasure, and he is unwilling to sell many of his larger pieces. He was very quiet and unassuming, but after meeting a few times, he promised me that the next time I visit, he will share more of the history behind his paintings and their stories. It appears that there are very few artists that continue to paint traditionally, and very little attention is placed in the curriculum at Addis Ababa University’s school of fine arts. I hope this does not become a lost art.

I also had the pleasure of meeting several artists’ groups, including “5ArtStudio”, “FOWA” and “Habesha Studio”. These artists groups (besides FOWA) have their own large home/studio compounds where they live/work. Many of the artists are graduates from fine arts programs (including Addis Ababa University), and they sell their work mostly to foreigners. I enjoyed
speaking with them, learning more about their influences, interests and outlook at the art world. We talked about how they interpret being Ethiopian into their work- each one so diverse from the next. I found it particularly inspirational that these artists continue with their craft despite the harsh realities of living in a very unstable economy. The majority of the artists I met were male; however I met a group of female artists named “FOWA” (Friends of Woman Artists)
at a gallery opening at the National Museum. I enjoyed speaking with them and getting advice from them regarding balancing their lives as mothers and artists. I found these conversations particularly helpful since it appears that most female artists/mothers “speak the same language”. These female artists do not have a centralized location which has made it difficult for them to
organize, however they are hoping to do so in the near future and I hope to support them with this goal.

One of the highlights of my trip was meeting the Most Honorable Afwerk Tekle, Ethiopia’s most revered artist. By chance, my driver for the day (who was co-owner of the guest house where we stayed) said he had a surprise- he was friends with Afwerk Tekle, and was able to secure a meeting for me. I had read about Tekle’s art, his impact on Ethiopia and his commitment to
his people, and needless to say, I was awestruck when I met him. We sat in his private art gallery which held his most prized pieces of artwork. There, he talked about his work and history, his friendships with other artists like Diego Rivera and Picasso, and he kindly showed us his art studio where he was working on several new pieces. I talked to him about my work, showed him a photo album of my work, and he was very positive and encouraging. There is not a single
Ethiopian that I know that doesn’t know him, and most Ethiopians were absolutely astonished that I had the opportunity to meet him in person. He is a legend, incredible artist and kind soul.

I was also able to visit the National Museum, several churches and art galleries around Addis Ababa. Along with meeting artists and visiting galleries, I had the opportunity to travel to the southern region of Ethiopia (about a 6 hour drive in a Land Rover), to take in the landscape and spend some time in a very rural environment. I am on the board of directors of a non-profit organization named Mudula Water, and we spent some time visiting Mudula, meeting the community and visiting a 500 year old fig tree which is at the center of the town and is
revered by the community. I spent some time sketching near a natural waterfall, and quickly became the center of attention for 50+ children and women doing their day labor. We had the opportunity to walk through a typical “Ethiopian neighborhood” in an extremely rural setting, witnessing women beating teff to make injera, men plowing the fields, children carrying water and tending animals. The expanse of the landscape was intensely beautiful and mostly
untouched, and left me breathless from the beauty and elevation!

While in Addis Ababa and in Hossana (also in the southern region), I was also able to visit a few organizations that I support, including AHOPE (African HIV Orphans: Project Embrace), the Tesfa Foundation (tesfa means “hope” in Amharic), Dr. Rick Hodes, and CHSFS-Ethiopia (our adoption agency). A group of women and I did an art project with the children of AHOPE which was very exciting. I was able to bring a luggage full of art supplies to AHOPE which they desperately needed. The children at AHOPE have such limited art supplies, and this continues to be a problem. When I arrived, the children had a bunch of broken crayons, ½ glue stick and white out- for 20+ children. Art supplies were also donated to another school in the southern region. I plan to continue collecting/donating art supplies to AHOPE and other organizations working with children. I found visiting these programs also helped me develop a better perspective on life in Ethiopia and all the chances for hope (“tesfa”) for the future.

The two weeks I spent in Ethiopia went by quicker than I expected, and I wasn’t able to see all that I had listed on my “to do” list, but in the end, I feel like I accomplished so much more than I thought I could. I have started to develop relationships with Ethiopian artists, and I have continued to keep in touch with them via email. I hope to be able to travel on a more regular basis in the future and I feel that travelling to Ethiopia is no longer an overwhelming idea- I have begun developing a bridge which I will continue to build for the rest of my life. I am forever grateful for the Francis A. Kinnicutt Travel Grant and Worcester Art Museum for supporting me in my quest for furthering my knowledge of Ethiopian art, culture and life.

List of People and Places and Organizations in Ethiopia:

Gebre Merha


Habesha studio

FOWA (do not have a website currently)

Afwerk Tekle

Mudula Water



Rick Hodes, MD

CHSFS Ethiopia


gi said...

hmmm... there is some weird spacing in the text. sorry.

Candi said...

Amazing story, Gina! That's so great that you are open to change your image and relationship with the area and people and keep on developing yourself in every way. I enjoyed reading about your trip and experience. I hope you get to go again soon. :)

Julie said...

Wonderful. Thanks for sharing.