LONDON — There is nothing quite like the buzz of a big, glamorous international art fair.

For larger, more well-established galleries with big-name artists on their rosters, there is a nonchalant air to their booths — they know the drill. But for galleries that are showing for the first time, it can be a nerve-racking experience that can feel like an enormous gamble in terms of expense, but also a huge opportunity in exposure. Read more

LONDON — How Addis Fine Art got off the ground is a tale of happenstance built on the back of good timing. Rakeb Sile, 39, who was born in Philadelphia and raised in London, had always been interested in the arts, having even flirted with the idea of working in the music industry before settling on a career in management consulting.

But whenever she traveled back to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she had lived for most of her early childhood until her family moved to Britain because of political unrest in the early 1990s, she spent time investigating the city’s growing but globally undiscovered contemporary art scene. She started collecting paintings and sometimes bought works directly from the artists because there was no professional gallery scene in terms of artist development and infrastructure.

Art became her passion, and in 2012 she took a six-month sabbatical in part because she was not sure if she wanted to stay in her career. “And I wanted to make sense of what I had collected,” she said, “to see where is the narrative.”

Once she was back in London, a Nigerian friend who was an art collector told her that the new Gallery of African Art was opening and that gallery officials did not want to debut a show with an artist from South Africa or Nigeria, countries whose art scenes have a lot of exposure internationally.

“I called Mesai, and I said: ‘We have an opportunity to do a show in London; we should do it. What do you think?’” she said, chuckling softly in the cafe of the Conduit, a private club in London where a large-scale work by Tadesse Mesfin, an artist Addis Fine Art represents, hangs in the lobby. “And he said, ‘I am in retirement.’ When he tells it, he says, ‘I thought you were absolutely crazy.’”

But that idea ended up being a solo exhibition in the summer of 2013 of an Ethiopian painter and sculptor, Wosene Worke Kosrof, who lives in California. It was a success. So with a little coaxing from Ms. Sile’s side, she and Mr. Haileleul partnered to set up Addis Fine Art with outposts in both London and Addis Ababa, where he had relocated.
Tariku Shiferaw’s “Afro Blue (Erykah Badu)” 2019.
Credit…Tariku Shiferaw/Addis Fine Art

“Our main goal was to be a bridge between here and the rest of the world,” Mr. Haileleul, now 63, said in a telephone interview from Addis Ababa. “It’s tough on the continent as a lot of artists do not have enough collectors to be able to support themselves so we felt like, ‘Yes, we will be based in Ethiopia, be authentic and really understand the history of the art of this country.’ It’s been one hell of a ride, and I never thought I would be working this hard at this stage in my life.”

Since Addis Fine Art’s debut at the Armory Show in New York in 2016, where the gallery showed the painter Emanuel Tegene, Ms. Sile and Mr. Haileleul have been storming across the African contemporary art scene, participating in fairs from the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London to Art Dubai and Art X Lagos in Nigeria. This week, the gallery will be at the Untitled art fair in Miami, showcasing the work of Tariku Shiferaw, a Harlem-based abstract minimalist painter.

Next year looks just as busy, not only because the gallery will move to a new permanent location in London in May. In March, Addis Fine Art will again be at both Art Dubai and the Armory Show. It will also put on exhibitions in its spaces in London and Addis Ababa.

“One of the things that has contributed to the steady success of Addis Fine Art is the fact that Rakeb has a commercial and corporate background while Mesai is an art historian,” Adnan Bashir, a collector of African contemporary art who also sits on the Africa Acquisitions Committee for the Tate, wrote in an email. “The confluence of business acumen and deep knowledge of Ethiopian art has served them well and been the bedrock of a successful commercial gallery model.”

That the majority of their artists are painters is no coincidence given Ethiopia’s rich art history that dates back to fourth-centurypaintings in churches, many of which still survive. The Alle School of Fine Art and Design, established in 1958, was the bedrock of the Ethiopian modernist movement with influential artists like Gebre Kristos Desta, considered to be the father of the country’s modern art scene, teaching a generation of students including Mr. Mesfin, who also taught there.

Tadesse Mesfin’s “Pillars of Life: Faith.”
Credit…Tadesse Mesfin/Addis Fine Art

But violent political turmoil for decades — which directly led to the infamous famine in the mid-1980s — meant that not only a majority of the artists but also the collecting class either fled or were killed. Now, though, art from the country is finally being recognized, thanks to the growing international successes of artists from the diaspora like Julie Mehretu (who is represented by the Marian Goodman Gallery) and Addis Ababa-based artists like Elias Sime(who received the 2019 African Art Award from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art) as well as Addis Fine Art’s platforms.

Even the political class has recently begun embracing the country’s contemporary art scene: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who this year was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for restarting peace talks with Eritrea, has works by a few of Addis Fine Art’s artists in the outer lobby of his office.

“That is one of the most striking things: Rakeb and Mesai clearly have a good eye,” said the curator Roger Malbert, the former head of touring exhibitions for London’s Hayward Gallery. “That consistent attention to quality and integrity of the program gives them special status on the London scene in terms of representing African art.”

But they have always balanced their global ambitions with focusing on the art scene in Ethiopia. That in turn has led them to organically establish something of a noncommercial arm to their work, helping to fill a gap because of the dearth of other gallery spaces, institutions, art criticism and curatorial programming. They are also creating a publishing offshoot and establishing an artist development program.

“Since Addis Fine Art joined our London edition in 2016, I have witnessed them establish themselves as one of the most important galleries on the continent,” the founder of 1-54, Touria El Glaoui, wrote in an email. “They are a leading example in harmonizing the needs and aspirations of a local creative scene with global networks and opportunities.”


Top photo: Rakeb Sile and Mesai Haileleul

LONDON--Thirty years ago, while Erika Lee was an undergraduate student, she made her first visit to her paternal grandfather’s village in Guangdong Province in southeastern China. Her grandfather — who had not been back for six decades — and other relatives organized the trip and took her along to see where his home once stood. Read more

KAREN, KENYA — In this suburb of Nairobi, the ubiquitous rust-red dirt is kicked up and splattered onto the banana tree leaves by the intense rains that sweep across the hills.

Here, away from the capital, there is space for designers to set up workshops and, green and lush, it offers inspiration for artisans. “When you work at your desk, you see in the garden birds and flowers,” said Gus Chaumont, a Frenchwoman who with her mother, Lilo, run the French-Kenyan interiors brand L’Équipée.“You just cannot get that in a normal office in Nairobi.”

Karen, said to have been named for the Danish writer Karen Blixen, who published works like “Out of Africa” under the pen name Isak Dinesen, has become a home to both expats and wealthy Kenyans, with stately villas and a few five-star hotels for travelers who want to be luxuriously situated close to the airports for safari excursions or beach holidays. It is also home to some of the city’s most intriguing and exclusive places to shop, for items like statement silver jewelry, hand-carved chairs and locally dyed and sewn fashion

“Karen is an incredibly inventive place,” said Sasha Horner, the director of House of Treasures. “The shopping aesthetic here is creative and of excellent quality. Most of the artisans are renowned for their attention to detail and the use of local labor in collaboration with imported goods to create their pieces, and a lot are eco-conscious too.”

Ms. Horner and her mother, Janet Hurt, decided to open a shop here 19 years ago. Located in a charming garden at 70 Dagoretti Road, the shop, House of Treasures, is both a concept store — they highlight local design and find items for their shop in places like Bali, India, Mexico and South Africa — and something of a mini-mall, where local vendors rent spaces to sell their designs.

One of those vendors is Linda Camm, whose workshop is a stone’s throw from here. She has worked for over three decades with Maasai artisans who create stunning beadwork on leather pillows, ottomans and belts.

Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, wore one of her shell belts on a tour of Canada in 2011. In the last few years Ms. Camm has focused much of her own design on mosaic mirrors and painted mirror tiles.

“Our dyeing and coloring is done locally, all the hardware I source here, aside from zippers, and I work with independent workshops that work with recycled brass,” she said, adding though that because the textile industry in Kenya is so small, she gets much of her cloth from India.

Bush Princess shares its space with L’Équipée, which sells hand-carved chairs with kanga prints and funky sculpted lights in the shape of animals like hippos and giraffes. L’Équipée also does some design work for Kazuri Beads (Mbagathi Road), a nearby shop that employs over 300 women who craft vibrant midsize jewelry.

Across town is the cheery bright boutique and workshop of the designer Anna Trzebinski (94 Tumbili Road), one of the trailblazers here in integrating Maasai beadwork into high fashion products like handbags, suede jackets and Nepalese-woven pashminas. Over the years she has worked with high-end fashion brands like Donna Karan and Paul Smith, and sells her accessories in stores across the United States.

Ms. Trzebinski’s exquisite tiny details set her work apart, with soft- as-a-baby suede bags that include design details like cowrie shells on the handles, or draping shawls trimmed with vibrant peacock feathers sewn onto the ends. “I have been working with the same people for the last 20 years, we are all together still and it’s a bit like a Parisian couture house,” said Ms. Trzebinski, whose daughter, Lana, is also a Karen-based designer and ceramist. “We often have the opportunity and choice to use raw materials that are much cheaper, but we don’t want to because in every single facet of what we do we want to uphold traditional craft.”
The studio also displays jewelry by Ms. Trzebinski’s daughter, Lana.
Credit…Photographs by Nichole Sobecki for The New York Times

Elizabeth Warner, who was born in America and raised in Kenya, infuses a similar vibe into her brand Maasai Collections, which has a small outpost at nearby Langata Link (Langata Road South). Founded in 2002, Maasai Collections sells both the creations of Ms. Warner, who designs jewelry made out of cow horn as well as woven beach bags with beaded straps, but other Kenyan pieces including Kapoeta by Ambica’s feather jewelry and flowing embroidered blouses by Aman Lamu.

Local designers and artisans rent spaces at Langata Link and sell everything from sweet children’s dressing gowns in pastel striped kikoi cloth to velvety skin care products made from macadamia nuts. “It’s pretty cool because you have a mishmash of designers here,” said Ms. Warner.

She was enthusiastic about the high-end crafts and antiques shop Utamaduni, nearby on Langata South Road, which sells hand-carved masks, figurines and statues from across sub-Saharan Africa, as well as items like Ghanaian leather and straw baskets covered in cowrie shells and elaborate antique wooden headrests adorned with silver from Somalia. “They have an enormous collection of things going on at Langata Link. It’s like an African bazaar with eclectic designers all doing their thing.”

 


A version of this article appears in print on , Section S,

LONDON–South African artist Mary Sibande’s avatar Sophie — a human-scale sculpture modeled on herself — was born during her final year at the University of Johannesburg fine arts degree. Sibande, whose older female relatives had been domestic workers, was assigned by one of her professors to tell a story through her artwork. “I remember talking to my supervisor and saying, ‘I want to play detective and investigate why these women in my family were all domestic workers.’ I wanted to pay homage to them,” said Sibande.

Read more