Art goes to the street

Arguably Ethiopians are not very public by nature; perhaps socially speaking they are. And many people are public-shy. Well, it looks like these barriers are being broken these days thanks to an emerging art scene in the capital called street performance art. And the public is slowly coming to terms with the street performance scene,   writes Mihiretesilassie Mekonnen.

It was an ideal time of the day when many people leave work and make their way home. It was around 5:00 in the afternoon last Wednesday. Suddenly, a young man apparently in his mid-thirties rushed to an open space located behind the compound of the Addis Ababa Fire Department around Piazza and started to jump on his rope. His actions did not take long to attract the attention of the few who happened to be passing by. Indeed, it was an odd choice of time and place to blow off steam by catching upon one’s daily exercise. And, certainly, after a while what the young man was doing became a bit much as a regular workout.

The curious cats stopped to get the feel of what he was doing and to determine whether he is a mental patient or if he is doing something purposeful. Soon, the young man decided to change his choice of exercise equipment and whipped out a soccer ball and started to juggle. He looked oddly professional at what he was doing as he kept the ball up in the air by bouncing it on his legs, shoulders and head while performing some mundane activities like taking off his shirt and doing some gymnastic moves. But, he did this while still keeping the ball in the air.

Aha! Football is something that is highly recognized and loved by Ethiopians. And that is when the crowed started to gather around him, nearly forming a full circle. This is also when most in the crowed were able to put their finger on what the young man was doing there at the late hours of the day. Yes, Arega Taddesse, is one of few budding street performers in Addis Ababa.

Arega’s performance featured a series of well-crafted maneuvers with the soccer ball which includes balancing and keeping the ball on some of the most unbelievable places like his chin, shoulders and his waist. By now, Arega has completely arrested the attention of the crowed which is evidenced in the cheer and clap as he moves from one maneuver to the other.

“Is it a magic show; I think it is a magic trick because nobody can do this,” the crowed chirps way as he sails expertly from one performance to the another. “No. He is just an athlete or a sportsman; the tricks are results of a long-term training,” others counter with their own take of the bizarre street show. Almost everyone in the crowed cannot help but offer his/her two-cents-worth on Arega’s performance. And of course, most dig deep into their pockets to drop a five or ten birr note on the ground for him. Arega’s show is also participatory. This part looks all too exciting for the crowed as he picks up volunteers and asks him/her to perform some difficult activities. The crowed flips out when Arega accomplishes the maneuvers which volunteers have tried and failed.

The latest addition to his performance, the art of balancing a bicycle or a chair on the tip of his nose is always a killer in his shows. Arega has special connection to his soccer ball. He says that his personal best is to keep the ball in the air for as long as two hours while juggling the ball over 3,000 times.

Arega grew up in an orphanage where he was taken early by the craftsmanship of performance art. He says his interest for performing took root when he dominated talent shows at the children’s home.

But his real performance career kicked off eight years ago when he for the first time decided to go out to the Mesquel Square with his soccer ball. Since then, Arega says that there are few venues and places in Addis Ababa where he has not performed.

Arguably Ethiopians are not very public by nature; perhaps socially speaking. Arega’s day-to-day encounters attest to this fact to the very least. He has been appreciated as much as he is misunderstood by his audience. He says he has been accused of exercising witchcraft on many occasions while being shoved off for disturbing the peace and wasting people’s time. “It is all in the day’s work,” he quips.

But, the biggest challenge comes in the form of law enforcement officers, Arega told The Reporter. The officers had accused me of disrupting the flow of traffic or creating unnecessary commotion. In fact, he says he even remembers the time when he was arrested by law enforcement officers and was later released by pressure from the crowed.

Now, performance art is his only means of income for Agrega and his daughter. “I remember one time when someone in my audience was so happy by the show and gave me 1000 birr; that was the highest I earned from my shows,” he recalls. But, in general, Arega says that performance art is not a lucrative venture to be in. The problem is compounded by the serious lack of appreciation for street performance in Ethiopia and the culture of paying for street entertainment.

Arega’s field of work is in fact quite common in other nations. Circus artists, musicians, dancers, painters and many others are common on the streets of the advanced world. Although sustainable revenue is also a common problem for street performers across the world, observers contend that audiences in the advanced nation better appreciate their street art venues and performers. Largely started as a form of rebellion by artists who felt that art is becoming too high class over the years, street performers in Europe has now become part of the societal fabric. Compared to the rest of world street performance is too undeveloped in Ethiopia; but it sure looks like it is emerging now.

It is all about attitude for Arega. He says the audience is yet to find its test in terms of street performance. “We struggle in terms of finding training space since we have no licenses or permits to do our work,” Arega argues. And he says he never gets paid nearly enough commensurate with  the level of hardship he goes through while training and the hustle he faces when he takes his show to the street.

Melaku Belay, famed traditional dancer, shares Arega’s sentiment about the perception of the public regarding street performance. According to him, only a few people have the privileges of enjoying artistic performances at formal venues like concerts, festivals or night clubs. Hence, street performance is absolutely instrumental in reaching the public and connecting to the audience.

Melaku, who gained world recognition for his electrifying performance of the eskista (traditional dance in Ethiopia), however, argues that street performance is not completely new to Ethiopia. Religious festivals like the Timket (epiphany) and Mesquel (finding of the true cross) are two venues where street performances have been common in Ethiopia, Melaku says. “People dance and do various artistic shows as part of the cultural celebration of the Timket. And, the Azmaris (traditional singer playing the fiddle) play music on the streets if one goes to the countryside,” he argues further.

Nevertheless, Melaku also feels that street performance is not necessarily an armature venue. It is common to see professional artists making an impromptu delivery on the street. In fact, the reverse is also true for a handful of well-recognized artists in the world like Tracy Chapman who has climbed the ladder of fame only after meeting their audience while performing on the streets.

Samuel Yirga, a renowned young Ethiopian pianist, has tried street performance in the same vein. He took his piano to piazza without any preparation and played for the public at the spot. In an interview with The Reporter a few months ago, Samuel expressed his belief in street performance since many people would not have the change to attend artistic works at various venues.

Another emerging traditional group, Ethiocolors, as well strongly argues in favour of street performance. In fact, the group says that it has plans to hold surprise street performance in Addis Ababa one of these days.

Perhaps performance art is better observed among the local painting society, commentators say. Painters like Tamirat Gezahagn are one of the few artists who have chosen the medium of performance art as a means of  getting his message across. He actually drenched his clothes in green color in order to raise awareness about global warming and need to work on environmental protection.

Among the art community, painters and sculptors look to be the ones taking street art quite seriously these days. A case in point is the recent artistic work that a group of painters and sculptors did on the Bole road, one of the main avenues in Addis Ababa. The artistic work depicts cultural heritages of the country such as traditional musical instruments, Geez numbers and alphabets and many others. Although it is the initiative of the city administration, painters and sculptors pooled from Painters and Sculptors Association, Ale Art and Design School, Abyssinia Art School and students from Teferi Mekonnen Technical and Vocational School took part in the project.

The president of the association, painter Seyoum Ayalew, argues that artistic ideas should not be restricted to canvases; rather the streets would be another medium that artist can reach the public. As a matter of fact, street art is quite a common form of expression in the rest of the world. Dubbed graffiti art, street paintings in many countries play a critical role by becoming a preferred form of expression for the society. Most graffiti artists are known to take up hard-hitting political and social issues and criticizing existing systems.

Defying the perception of most of the street artists in Ethiopia, spectators like Zemen Ayele argue that there is a considerable section in the Ethiopian society that enjoys the so-called street performances and artistic works. Zemen says that the street painting that she saw on the Bole road is a very good beginning. Although she firmly believes that such art should be encouraged, she also admits that some are doing it just for the money and that the artistic beauty is getting lost through time.

However, there appears to be a new breed of street performers in Addis Ababa by way of young skateboarders who have become a common sight in recent times. Their association, Ethiopia Skate, is made of skaters pooled from the capital city and few regional towns. Skating can be fairly said to be a new phenomenon both to the capital and the country as a whole. Last year, the gang of skaters is spotted in a few areas in Addis Ababa performing unusual scene which at times appears to be quite dangerous. But, this is the essence of the public skating around the world. Predominately performed by youngsters, skating has finally arrived at the streets of Addis Ababa especially around Sarbet, Cassanchis, Mesquel Square and few others.

In many parts of the world, skating is considered to be a sport for the young and for rebellion. It got all the ingredients: fun, danger and amusement. The Ethiopian Skaters as well are already coming head-to-head with society. They say many people tell them to stop their skate shows when they see it involving a reasonable amount of danger. Like their colleagues around the world, Ethiopians skaters did not have the best of relationships with law enforcement officers. Many say that officers chase them away or take away their skateboards if found skating on the streets.           

“Skating is a sport that develops self-confidence and vibrancy among the youth,” say Michael Bahiru (MD), public relation head and team doctor for the Skate Ethiopia team. However, perception is improving these days. The team is now building the first and only skate park in Ethiopia behind the Lafto Mall.

And if there is one thing that can be said about skating or any form of street performance art in Ethiopia it is that it is coming; and it is coming hard. And by the looks of things it is here to stay.  

                                

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