My week in Addis Ababa ended on a celebratory note with the opening of the Four Freedoms exhibition at the U.S. Embassy on Entoto Road. About 250 people attended the opening, many of them the artists who submitted works. They were eager to learn whose work was selected by the jury for the exhibition, and especially excited to learn who the four prize winners were who would each receive a cash prize and have their work hung in the embassy for the duration of Ambassador Booth’s tour.
Alyson Grunder introduced the program in the main atrium of the Embassy and described the high quality of the works entered into the competition and the difficulty in selecting 25 for exhibition. Ambassador Booth spoke eloquently to the meaning and history of the Four Freedoms and Norman Rockwell’s interpretations of them, explaining his vision to invite interpretations of these principles of democracy by the artists of Ethiopian on the 70th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s articulation of these ideals in January 1941.
When the names of the 21 “runners up” selected for exhibition were read by the Ambassador, the audience started clapping in unison for each honorable mention recipient. Each came to podium to receive his or her certificate. As the judging was done blindly, it was not known until then who was to receive awards. As it turned our, two artists among the 25 were women, and one of them was among the four winners.
The four winners for each category are:
Freedom from Fear: Robel Berhane. Freedom of Speech: Birtukan Dejene. Freedom of Worship: Asnake Melesse. Freedom from Want: Haron Sulieman. Ambassador Booth invited them to the podium. As they came to the podium, each painting, which had been draped and hidden beneath traditional Ethiopian cloth coverings, was revealed. Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms prints flanked the central Ethiopian paintings. The assembled crowd clapped and cheered enthusiastically as each artist came to the podium to have their photo taken with the Ambassador. A cash prize was awarded to each, a sum of measurable benefit to the artists for supplies and support for their continued art making.
U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald E. Booth noted in announcing the Four Freedoms Art Competition: “We hope this art contest will spur interest in American history and popular art as we open our new Embassy building. Norman Rockwell’s illustrations of President Roosevelt’s four freedoms are deeply familiar images to most Americans and a special art form that we would like to share with our Ethiopian friends.”
As this was the second time during the week that the artists were visiting the brand new U.S. Embassy, they were clearly more comfortable in the august setting, which is filled with Ethiopian art. Many artists and I recognized each other from my talk earlier in the week and we exchanged greetings and conversation.
Following the remarks and ceremony, we assembled for the opening of the exhibition in the Resource Library and Multi-purpose room gallery space where the 25 finalists’ works were on view. These had been installed the previous day with the assistance of my Fine Arts student volunteers, who were also in attendance, and were visibly thrilled to see their handiwork, complete with bi-lingual labels in English and Amharic, beautifully installed.
As I looked around the rooms at the variety of interpretations of the Four Freedoms, I was struck anew by the artists’ clear understanding of the concepts. Earlier in the day, members of the press had asked me if the artists had understood the concepts and represented them with subtly and depth. They especially probed me on their interpretations of Freedom of Speech, which as I gathered from conversations during the week was only recently a concept that was being more liberated by the government, a lingering effect, I suppose, from recent past years of communist-influenced government.
Freedom of Religion has enjoyed a long and tolerant co-existence for centuries, as Ethiopia was one of the earliest civilizations to embrace Christianity and Islam in their early years of formation and dissemination. A small Jewish community also lived for many years in the Northern regions of Ethiopia. On the streets today, one sees the visible symbols of religious affiliation in the ethereal white shawls worn by many Christians and the colorful head scarves worn by Muslim women. One also sees many people in contemporary Western dress, with no traditional cultural or religious garments..
It is my hope that a larger exhibition the artist’s interpretations of the Four Freedoms might be installed at the Ethiopian National Museum in the newly renovated contemporary art galleries upon conclusion of the exhibit at the Embassy so that more people can be exposed to these concepts and to the many contemporary artists who live and work in Addis Ababa today.
It was a privilege to participate in this program conceived by Ambassador and Mrs. Donald Booth, and supported so ably by the U.S. Embassy team. I feel that I made life-time friends among the Ethiopians I worked with and the Embassy personnel. A crowning moment was meeting the artist, Taye Welde Medhin, who met Norman Rockwell 47 years ago, and from whom he purchased a painting that is today in the Studio Collection at Norman Rockwell Museum. We had our photo taken, and it was a moment of immense meaning to both of us.