An Ethiopian Dream in Art Conservation: Ethiopian Art Conservation Program, the first program to train Ethiopian art conservators

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Ceremonial Christmas weaving of fabric in Lalibela.  Image by and courtesy of Naomi Meulemans

By Naomi Meulemans, with special thanks to Belay Girmay Haileselassie

The Ethiopian Art Conservation Program (EACP) is a bilateral project between Belgium and Ethiopia which has been in place since January of this year. In August 2021 it became an independent organization responsible for providing restoration and conservation education in Ethiopia. Its headquarters are in Antwerp, Belgium, with the goal of establishing an MA university program in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia by 2030. For both the structural build-up of the project and the implementation of the education, EACP calls on Ethiopian professionals. 

In January 2020, conservator Naomi Meulemans (The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp Belgium) set out to explore the cultural sector in Ethiopia. With a backpack full of knowledge and a personal interest in the country, she went in search of her roots and history in the country she left as a child in 1990. Her goal was to bring together Western knowledge of art conservation with the substantive expertise and deontology of dealing with cultural heritage in Ethiopia. What initially seemed like a tourist’s adventure very quickly became an explosion of cross-pollination.

The beauty of art conservation for many conservators is that we strive to play a neutral, yet irreplaceable and universal, role in the world. Preserving the past is a pleasure because it often brings to light knowledge about the history and the creative soul of our ancestors. Through our cultural heritage we not only learn about revolutionary material and technical developments of the past, but we also gain insight into how our own visual culture will age in the distant future. Using our preserved heritage to look back can provide a new interpretation of both cultural issues and traceable evidence of our society's identity. It is precisely this search for identity that forms the founding principles of the Ethiopian Art Conservation Program.

Not only does Ethiopia have an unparalleled wealth of historical sites that are part of humanity's anthropological history, but the overwhelming amount of on-going art and cultural experiences is impossible to map. Ethiopian art is inextricably linked to daily and ceremonial life. From childhood one comes into contact with centuries-old traditions which carry liturgical and philosophical meanings. The traditions are recorded in everything, from art objects to utensils and in educational and decorative depictions.

It stands above all else that Ethiopia is a crossroads of history, art and culture. It is therefore not surprising that the amount of protected tangible and intangible Ethiopian patrimony dominates on the lists compiled by global institutions such as ICOMOS and UNESCO. This documentation has resulted in significant foreign involvement with numerous research and international conservation institutes which are active at various sites in Ethiopia. There are a variety of projects including everything from excavation sites to well-organized conserva-tion campaigns on historical Ethiopian artifacts inside the country as well as those lo-cated in institutions and museums worldwide. Not only have these projects increased the international knowledge of Ethiopian history, they have also stimulated tourist activities throughout the country. In fact, cultural tourism has grown to the point of becoming the number one source of income for local Ethiopian professionals.

It will come as no surprise then to say the impact on Ethiopia, made by the current pandemic caused by Covid-19, has been quite dramatic due to the absence of tourists for more than a year, especially impacting areas outside of major cities. Nevertheless, communities have continued to persevere through the situation by working to better understand an economy that is based on tourist activity. What appears to be a temporary emergency for many countries has become an interesting and introspective challenge for Ethiopia in learning how to promote culture and heritage in a more sustainable manner.

While tourism brings with it a renewed vigilance, putting heritage front and center on the table, it is striking that there are no officially organized art conservation and deontology training programs for dealing with heritage within Ethiopia itself.  Tourism and the cultural sector seem to be booming, but nurturing, preserving and restoring for the future seem to be largely a foreign affair.

However, there is a great local concern for heritage conservation. The conservation campaign on the complex of Coptic rock churches in Lalibela, in northern Ethiopia, is a great example of this. Since the 1960s, large-scale campaigns have been carried out to combat the problems of corrosion and water infiltration on this, the number-one tourist site in Ethiopia.  Although the local population, the Coptic Church and the Ethiopian government took the lead in addressing this problem, the expertise and implementation of the current conservation campaigns was left to international agencies and outside organizations such as UNESCO. This unfortunate pattern has risen not only because of major shortages of financial resources in Ethiopia, but also because of a general lack of scientific knowledge related to conservation. Although these foreign organizations carry out the treatments and preservation campaigns with the best of intentions, it has also become apparent that their lack of knowledge of local deontology, materials and practices was a major deficiency in creating sustainable restoration campaigns.

Several reports from visitors to the churches of Lalibela give evidence of these circumstances, and a similar trend of invasive international interventions is also emerging in central and southern Ethiopia. Although a vast knowledge of intangible and tangible heritage is widely represented in the local population—and often constitutes the subject itself—this population is never invited to participate in the decision-making process for conservation and restoration campaigns. As a result, preservation decisions for Ethiopian heritage are often based on incorrect or incomplete interpretations made by international conservators, decisions which often lead to drastic results.

This reality does not take away from the fact that there is a great need for preservation campaigns and the presence of expertise, but it did raise Naomi’s initial question "Why?" in January 2020. The search for the answer is what led to the creation of the Ethiopian Art Conservation Program and verything it aims to accomplish. Initially, the lack of an Ethiopian educational program for national conservators became immediately apparent. But in addition, the absence of a structured cultural sector is a long-term problem that makes Ethiopians completely dependent on inter-national intervention in the management of conservation for their patrimony. These two major obstacles create the parameters for how EACP will work together with the Ethiopian and international communities.

The EACP's main goal is to be a pillar of support within the Ethiopian cultural community rather than becoming an international organization. With a 10-year timeframe, EACP aims to be the bridge between local expertise and international understanding of conservation and restoration. The Program will help build a future in which job opportunities and protecting heritage go hand-in-hand, all this so that Ethiopian world cultural heritage will be sustainably preserved for the new generations of cultural leaders.

The EACP works and shares goals with the many local participants such as priests, artisans and scholars who are already protecting their heritage on a daily basis; in doing so they are also protecting the nation’s rooted identity. Protecting knowledge of the earth is one of the most beautiful experiences through this collaboration, as it crosses borders and religions. Therefor it is not surprising that the current political situation in Ethiopia poses a great challenge not only to the Ethiopian people but to this project as well. The EACP draws on expertise from the Tigray region (Axum University), the Lalibela region (Woldia University) and works closely with Bahir Dar University. It is also working with governmental institutions, such as The National Museum in Addis Ababa, with the goal to build an educational platform that can be accessed by all regions in the country. The current heritage political situation in Ethiopia, which has quietly become an internal conflict, is inextricably linked to culture and geographical connection. The EACP has decided to take up this challenge and still continues with its intentions to contribute as much as possible to creating cultural unity and to work even harder on promoting the importance of protecting cultural heritage.

In tandem with these efforts within Ethiopia, we are working hard to develop the program further from Belgium, where we are joined at the negotiating table by the Ethiopian community. Although for the moment we have become a virtual community, together with the University of Antwerp (Belgium) we are in the process of setting up a think tank. Beginning January 2022, a virtual program will be available on the EACP digital platform where workshops will be implemented to highlight where the challenges of conservation in Ethiopia are located. In this way, we will be able to slowly but steadily develop a mature training program, which will eventually be provided at the university level by 2030. Although this will require great effort from the more than 30 professionals involved, it is a project that has already surpassed everyone’s expectations.

Conservators with an interest in this project are welcome to join all of our future events and can find more information on our website: www.ethioart.org.

 

 Author Byline

Naomi Meulemans holds a masters in art conservation from University of Antwerp (2010) and a postgraduate operation management degree from University of Leuven (2016). She worked at Fine Arts Conservation Group in NYC (2010-2014) and since 2016 has held the position of Modern art conservator at The Phoebus Foundation, where she is responsible for the Modern and Contemporary art collections.

(Read the article and see all the pictures in the December-January 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 87, p. 16-21)

 

 

 

 

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With a backpack full of knowledge and a personal interest in the country, Naomi went in search of her roots and history in the country she left as a child in 1990. What initially seemed like a tourist’s adventure very quickly became an explosion of cross-pollination.
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