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by Bekele Mekonnen

Reshaping Wax: Addis Ababa—the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design

The Alle School of Fine Arts and Design in Addis Ababa, which has survived multiple official regimes, reached its sixtieth year in 2018 according to the European calendar. During its long journey, the school gradually and unconditionally embraced a Eurocentric “Academie des Beaux Arts” type of educational structure that has never been questioned.

Modern education in general and Art education in particular was given serious consideration after the 1941 return from exile of Emperor Haile Selassie. Locally the first institution of its kind, the Addis Ababa Fine Art School was founded under the Department of Education and Fine Arts. Fifty years later, the school was renamed in honour of its founder, Alle Felegeselam.

Felegeselam, a young, enthusiastic Ethiopian art graduate from the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1950s, worked diligently for the formation of this important school. He was lucky to have influential supporters from Haile Selassie’s palace, including Princess Tenagnewerk (elder daughter of the Emperor) and Kebede Michael (government minister, poet and prolific author). With help from the Emperor and sympathetic members of the expatriate local business community, the art school was built and inaugurated by Haile Selassie on 23 July 1958, the date of his own birthday.

Felegeselam became head of the school and the only Ethiopian teacher. The rest of the faculty members were Europeans who came to the country for various purposes.

To give a typical example, one of the earliest contributing teachers was an Austrian professional sculptor called Herbert Sailor. He left Vienna on an adventurous motorbike journey, crossing the Mediterranean and riding through the North African desert until he reached Addis Ababa in mid-1956. There he decided to suspend his trip and remain for good. Within two years of his arrival, Sailor was invited to join the brand-new art school, where he became a prominent instructor in drawing and sculpture for more than 17 years.

Alongside the school was a group of traditional painters working in separate studio spaces in a distinctly traditional style. However, the sudden intoxication of the newly introduced naturalistic technique had begun to undermine the traditional approach and both students and teachers of the school turned their backs on the modest traditional artists and their home-grown style. Traces of their work can still be seen on hundreds of canvases that remain piled up in storage.

The question that remains unanswered is why the school’s curriculum failed to incorporate even a tinge of indigenous elements. This is even more surprising given that Felegeselam was himself from a family of traditional painters who ascribed to strictly orthodox religious values and beliefs. Today it is hard to imagine the new art institution on the soil of independent Ethiopia with not a trace of Ethiopian traditional culture in it.

It was at that critical inaugural moment, according to several scholars (Elizabeth Giorgis,  Essey G. Medhin et al 2010) that the Alle School of Fine Arts set the cultural agenda for the curriculum that was to be unquestioningly followed from then on. While a “master-apprentice” system is an old and widely practiced approach, this was not encouraged within the new art school, even as an alternative channel alongside the modern one. Instead, the Eurocentric art education system was emulated in its totality and not only in the subject of Art. Possession of a university degree became what people strove for in every discipline. As Ethiopians, our voluntary acceptance of this situation has meant that homegrown or indigenous scholarship has been severely marginalized. The result is that conducting a workshop or a master class by homegrown intellectuals outside the university system in places such as monasteries is very difficult to do.

After a couple of decades, some concerned Ethiopians began to criticize the deliberate absence of homegrown knowledge in the curriculum of the modern education system including that of the art school. Among the champions of local knowledge was Eguwale Gebreyohanis, who, in his Yekefitegna timihirt zeyibe (The methods of higher education), (1965) wrote: “[T]he curricula of modern education should include the prolific resources that comprise  traditional knowledge.”

In the early 1970s Ethiopians began returning from both eastern and western Europe to replace the faculty at the art school, which was still dominated by European instructors. These Ethiopian graduates from European higher education institutions (particularly the ones returning from France and Germany) succeeded in creating an alternative agenda within the established curriculum of the school. Gebre Kirstos Desta introduced a German expressionist flavour, while Skunder Bogassian injected the curriculum with afro surrealistic fusion. The excitement elicited by the new ideas was immense and continued to be fertile ground for decades. It was primarily students who were attracted to and followed those tracks who eventually succeeded in their careers both in Ethiopia and abroad.

Coming back to the nature of the curriculum, even though the basic principles of the European academies were routinely applied, up until 1974 there had still been a measure of flexibility, and teachers could adopt alternative approaches like the ones mentioned above. In this regard, the generic nature of the curriculum left room for some flexibility, moreover, the professional and intellectual balance among the instructors at the time was a major factor. Students had the opportunity to open up their minds with multiple artistic options to follow.

The nonaligned foreign policy of Haile Selassie meant that students were sent for further studies to both Western and Eastern Europe. Most students who had an artistic and cultural background preferred to join East European academies, which functioned more or less according to a 17th century French academic canon. From 1975 until the collapse of the Soviet Union, a great number of Ethiopian students were educated in Eastern European academies. Nearly half of them returned home to become art school instructors during the next 45 to 50 years.

With the 1974 replacement of Haile Selassie’s regime with that of the socialist military junta, the art school faced an inevitable challenge from the party propagandists. In order to continue to exist the art school was required to serve the regime by producing propagandistic material, such as posters, illustrations and murals. It was during these 17 horrendous years that the art of poster making, along with the work of the admirable German Expressionist artist, Käthe Kollwitz, was introduced locally for the first time. Benefiting from the crafts and skills of the school, the regime remained friendly to the existence of the art school. The dominance of instructors from Communist Eastern European academies meant there was a prevalence of ideology of the same origin. It was pointless to think of fundamental change or revision in that particular curriculum at that moment in time.

At the beginning of the 1990s more than 98 per cent of the school’s instructors were from Eastern European academies. Despite recurrent political-economic changes in the country during the 1990s, this homogenic pattern among instructors meant that the schooling system remained unchanged.

While the original objective of the art school had been primarily to produce art teachers, the institution ended up producing primarily practitioners of art, with strong technical skills in their respective fields.

Despite the school’s resistance to change it has managed to survive for more than sixty years (1958 to the present). One of the reasons for this is that it was for most of the time the only higher education institution for art in the entire country. Another reason for the school’s survival has been its strong studio-based training programme, particularly in drawing and painting. Furthermore, as long as the Alle School of Fine Arts has continued to provide the best art skilled technicians in the  Ethiopia, the government has remained happy, which in turn means that the school continues to receive state funding.

While there is no question that skill is in itself a valuable asset, the school’s resistance to change needs to be questioned: In a rapidly and continuously changing world, is it feasible to continue as an art school, by adamantly subjecting Art to a narrowly fixed and outdated rule?

— There is no reason to remain this narrow in outlook other than the failure of a system that excludes artists from any involvement in the current massive reconstruction process of Addis

— There is no reason for remaining so limited other than the stagnant teaching process, which produces voiceless artists who are incapable of understanding the recent act of neo patronization by the Western embassy mission in the capital and its authoritarian meddling in the artistic affairs of the

What is to be done?
Nowadays, the question of reinventing a system within art schools has become a global one. From my recent informal conversation with Ugandan and Kenyan professionals, I have learned that the nature of the problem in the eastern region of Africa seems more or less identical.

Professors in East African institutions should genuinely come together and commit themselves to serious and profound academic discussion and debate, particularly on the fate of their respective institutions in the 21st century. The existence of serious problems should be admitted and strongly prioritized.

If “change” is the agenda, then the button can be triggered only from within the system. In the past ten years, the demand for change has increasingly been knocking on the tight doors of the existing system, from both the artistic community outside the Alle school and from within the school. To a great extent the demand for change from the students supersedes the intellectual sphere of their teachers.

No matter what the reaction from the Alle school is, here is nothing to prevent the institution from testing the new possibilities already observed among artists around the globe. It is time to go forward before students lose faith in the school.

The necessity for change — an immediate solution
There is always an alternative solution for a given problem. In a system like education, particularly in art education or an art production system, there are numerous formal and informal alternatives.

For various reasons, such an informal reaction is unlikely to work in the current Ethiopian political and economic environment. The challenge should be happening on a more formal level in relation to the legislation, particularly as regards the “Harmonization rule” in the higher education proclamation of July 2009. This rule stipulates that only thirty percent of the total university intake will be comprised of social science and humanities students and seventy percent will be engineering and other hard sciences. This ratio is a clear indication of the Ethiopian policy’s short-sightedness regarding the arts and the soft sciences. Furthermore, there are clear contradictions in the current policy for national art with billions spent on Art education at the same time as the intake numbers are reduced.

“Harmonization” is a guiding control system that is intended to homogenize subjects across universities in Ethiopia. For any subject offered, every university offering that subject is required to harmonize its content with that of other Ethiopian universalities. In other words, the content (of sociology, for example) must be the same if not an actual replica for all departments in the country. Ethiopia currently has 33 universities (MOE, 2016). Besides Alle Arts School at the Addis Ababa University, only Mekele University has so far managed to open an art department. However, a second university is on its way to opening an ambitious art department with a budget more than 500 million Birr (close to a quarter of a billion SA rand) on the bank of the Blue Nile.

These art departments have no choice but to follow the harmonization rule. This means a duplication of the existing curriculum of the Alle. If all 33 universities were to open identical art schools, it would mean national bankruptcy in the art education of the country. And if the Alle Arts School, Fine Arts is going to set the curriculum for the entire country this makes transformation within the school itself all the more urgent.

Following my emphasis on the need for urgent system transformation, I make the following recommendations:

1. Think of a new educational system that is responsive to the local realities and compatible with the global New is always relative—it is important to capitalize on what is already best in hand, and then to look for what complements that to fill the gap that makes it nearly complete.

2. Consolidate the curriculum with relevant theoretical and philosophical inputs to make the existing expertise meaningful to its Engage the professors and the students in the process. Every chapter of Eurocentric art history is already in question. It is time to engage in a deconstructing process rather than maintaining the status quo.

3. Introduce comprehensive guidelines and versatile techniques that closely respond to the contemporary

4. Introduce new selection criteria to identify talented From my personal experience the rule that we have been using so far is insufficient, particularly in a less urbanized Ethiopia. As in any art school in the developed country only those candidates who demonstrate high level performance will have the chance to join a school. Talent can be demonstrated in several ways, but the majority of candidates, who may come from underprivileged parts of the country, will always be overlooked if a single-rule talent search process is used. Multiple criteria should be introduced to identify multiple forms of ability.

5. Curriculum change alone is not enough to bring about the necessary Rather, the actors on the ground should believe in it, dedicate and play in harmony. In the case of the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design fundamental structural adjustment must be initiated. At this point, the frightening “animal” called adjustment might offend many who trained within and comfortably live through the old scheme. It is critical to convince these groups that change is inevitable and for the good of the next generation and the country in general. Furthermore, they should be assured that they will not lose their titles and jobs because of this transformation. Instead, there is room for them to continue to contribute with the skills they have.

Already there is a glimmer of hope in the occasional activities of the art schools, such as workshops, as well as the regular schedule of the new graduate programme. However, the non-traditional performances, the workshops and the regular graduate programme are currently run in a hostile environment. Animosity, insecurity and deflation are evident. I personally believe these small glimpses of new possibility are the initial steps along the bitter road towards the inevitable change.

Bekele Mekonnen was first appointed as a junior lecturer at the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design in 1984. He continued in this position until 1987 and then worked as a lecturer between 1994 and 2010. From 2011 until the present, he has worked as a senior lecturer at assistant professor level. From 2001until 2004 he acted as director of the school for one term and from 2010 to 2012 he completed a further term. He led the task force for the upgrading of the school in 1999-2001. During the years 2001-2013 he served as a member of the academic council, the head of the Sculpture Department and as a chairperson of the Curriculum Revision Committee. He currently coordinates the graduate programme in the Film Production Department. His ongoing and long-term involvement in the school's academic affairs and frequent visits to higher learning art institutions abroad have enabled him to make a critical comparison between the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design and others around the globe. In 1998 he and a group of colleagues instituted a process towards fundamental change in the academic structure of the school which placed the curriculum at the centre of this transformative process. Today, despite the challenges from the traditional establishment, the struggle for inevitable change continues alongside the rushing shuttle of each day.


Egwale Gebreyohannes, Yekefitegna Temirt Zeyibe, Commercial Printing Press, Addis Ababa, 1965.

Tekeste Negash, Education in Ethiopia: From Crisis to the Brink of Collapse, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, 2006.

Elisabeth Wolde Giorgis & Essey G. Medhin, The idea of University in contemporary Ethiopia—Zerihun Yetimgeta retrospective, AAU Press https://www.academia.edu/31468896/The_Idea_of_the_University_in_Contemporary_Ethiopia (accessed 30 January 2021)


Ethiopian Ministry of Education website—2016 http://www.moe.gov.et/ (accessed 30 January 2021)


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Issue 49

Decolonial Propositions