Lessons from a pioneer Ethiopian female painter


She was born in Adwa town of Tigray State in 1951. Her passion for painting started to send roots when she was a child as she was often stunned by the natural beauty of the surrounding where she grew up. With invisible hands it clicked with her soul. Meanwhile, she moved to Addis for a better education and chance to her nature-bestowed talent of painting. The good opportunity created, coupled with her commitment in pursuing her heart beat, played a midwifery role to the pioneering and successful Ethiopian female Artist Laureate Desta Hagose. She is today’s guest of The Ethiopian Herald. She will be sharing about her life as well as professional experiences to us.

The Ethiopian Herald: Thank you for being with us.

Laureate Desta: Thank you for having me as your guest.

Herald: So, who is Desta Hagos in general? Could you walk us through your historical background.

Desta: Okay. I would like to start with my childhood. I was born in Adwa.I used to live in a school compound that boasted a big garden with a spectrum of magnificent plants. Impressed by their eye-catching beauty, I used to pick a variety of leaves and flowers from those plants to take them home.

One day my father came to me and told me to stop picking up the leaves and flowers. He convinced me “Cutting part of the plants is tantamount to killing them!” He said that he would bring me crayons and colored pencils so that I rather capture the flowers on blackboards and papers.

Herald: Was your father educated?

Desta: He wasn’t. Not much enough. But he was very much an artist. He was a self-trained architect sought-after by many. It was his architectural skill which became a reason to come him from Eritrea to Adwa for a job. That was how he met my mother and they got married.

As life went on, my father had a problem with his eyes and went back to Eritrea for medical attention. Leaving my sister, who is eight years older than me, in a morning school in Adwa he went there with me and my mother. I was a second grader at that time and the situation somehow became harsh for my family.

During that time, my mother’s cousin used to live in Addis alone. Considering the complication of things in my family, he offered me a chance to leave with him. I came to Addis and joined Etege Menen Morning School. That means I grew up in Addis.

Herald: Where did you go to college?

Desta: Before that, while I was an elementary student there was an art department in Etege Menen School. When the other kids were playing volleyball, I started honing my painting skill being a member of art department. I still remember my art teachers’ names Kebede, Ethiopian and Ms. Erwine, French.

They used to follow up, comment on and collect my paintings. Then a global children painting competition came up from India.My teachers sent my paintings. Thanks to the opportunity my painting was top on the rank list. I was very little and even though I don’t remember event well, I won award for me and my school too.

However, it was because of that performance that Princess Hirut, before the overthrow of Emperor Hilesilasie, allowed me a scholarship to join the School of Arts when I was in high school. That was how I embraced art as my walk of life.

Herald: Tell us about your experiences in art school.

Desta: Well, I didn’t even have the slightest knowledge about the existence of the school of art in Ethiopia until I joined it. The course used to take five years for diploma. It was a field that had been given a big attention with abundant educational materials fulfilled. But there were only finger counted students at that time. We used to learn English, Anatomy, Landscape Painting, Sculpture including pedagogical training etc. Art had a very great deal of attention at that time. Even the Emperor himself used to come and visit us. I graduated in 1970.

However, the time I graduated overlapped with the time the nation was rocked by a revolution. It was a period the Nation was torn apart at a crossroad of ideological movements. I volunteered to teach mechanical drawing in one of the schools in Addis near the British Embassy in vain because it was a dangerous time of rush.

The principal and other teachers of the school, where I volunteered, desuaded me claiming that the time was not the right one to engage in such volunteerism. So my voluntary job lasted for three months and I left the Country for the United States. There, I joined the Lutheran University of California to study art for four years and graduated with BA degree.

Herald: As you told us, an art student has to take different courses while studying the field. What makes art different from other fields of studies?

Desta: In the study of art one has to learn everything in depth. Everything one sees has its own unique character in shape, color or sense of feeling that inspires one to do what one does. Not only what one sees from the outside but also the inner design of the thing that inspires one has its own significant factor in the works of art. That is why we have to take many courses. The deep observation of the things we see plus the internal impression that develops and that creates the results of joining our brushes with the canvas as well as the peoples’ understanding makes art special or different.

Herald: What is painting or visual art to you and what inspires you to doing it?

Desta: Painting for me is admiring nature. One does not stop there, just by admiring it, but one goes further to capturing it on canvas. When an artist sees something green, it does not mean that it is only green. The artist will give it a deep, perspective to the color and show a special meaning to the moment of the situation. On the other hand the artist will be telling a story with a variety of colors. Each and every design that a painter illustrates has its own value and finishing touch on the thing.

That is crucial. There is a meaning in making a small room wide and one has to know how to do it and what color to use. Art is a school of thought that touches every field of study. It teaches one to be focused on things. If something strikes me, I have to put myself in to it and describe it in my paintings. So, art to me is like a way to show other people see things in a visual perspective that inclines to perfection. Wherever one goes and one sees has a sense or fingerprint of art.

On the other hand, one can express everything one feels with the painting art without needing any accompaniment.

One may not have to go in to arguments with others to describe one’s feeling and what one knows of. One can just paint it and keep the stories one wants to tell with one’s colors. The art of painting is like one’s best friend that one plays and shares one’s feelings with. In doing so, one will never forget the beauty of colors and one’s effort how to harmonize them in one’s works of art. My inspiration most of the times is nature. Even though I have done several paintings in different styles, my favorite one is a realistic style of painting.

Herald: So many ways of art like poetry, fictions, music etc have been used to change the history of mankind. What was the contribution of painting art in the Ethiopian history of your time?

Desta: The art of painting is very educational. Let me show you this painting of mine (A paintings of a mother holding two children with her arm. Deep fear and doubt are stamped all over their faces). I did not remember when and how this painting was sold but it sent by its possessor from Germany.

It shows how horrifying the time was during the civil war in Ethiopia was and how mothers went through a lot to protect their children. Many other painting works of other people have contributed a lot in different socioeconomic and political perspectives.

When politics do not go well in our country, one would just do one’s paintings and hide them because the happiness of a painters remains in her/his works of art.

Herald: You have become a Laureate now. Could you tell us about it?

Desta: This honor was given to me recently by Abissinia Awards. I can say that I have been engaged in painting art my whole life. Meanwhile, I have been trying to show the depict the true image of my country through my art works in different colors, which tell different stories. I am the first Ethiopian female artist who held my own painting art exhibition.

That is when I graduated from Lutheran University of California at the end of 1969. It had gained a good media coverage and my paintings were sold like a hot cake though the prices were not that big. I had displayed my paintings in more than 50 local and international exhibitions that were inaugurated by higher officials. I had also been giving several voluntary services for free in different aspects.

For instance, I worked with Zer Ethiopia a Non- Governmental Organization that supports and works on the empowerment of women. I have also made a significant contribution working with the Committee for the Restitution of Axum Oblique for a long time. On the other hand, I have been actively participating in different developmental and humanitarian fund raising initiatives. So, I think the Abysinia awards took that into consideration to nominate me and awarded me with this honor, Laureate.

Herald: What do you suggest that the government and other actors in the arts field should do to promote art and encourage rising young artist?

Desta: Well, I have heard great news that came from the City Administration of Addis Ababa recently. There is a plan to build a collective and standard quality hall at the heart of the City in front of St. George Church at pyasa where cultural and artistic works will be displayed. This country is a nation of arts. We have so many young artists who have less access to galleries to display and sell their works of art. Those who manage to rent galleries and their own exhibition usually pay forty percent of their income from the sale of their works for the galleries.

Therefore, they may not benefit from their works of art because there are many material costs they have to cover when they do their works. In this case the establishment of this collective institution would reduce the challenges that the young artists are facing. The government has to exert level best effort in realizing the construction of this establishment with the support of the public as well as those who have affection for art.

Herald: Thank you for your time!

Desta: Thank you for having me as your guest

The Ethiopian Herald Sunday Edition 29 September 2019