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Technology Expands the World for African Artists

New York Times   in  ·
March 25, 2016

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — A visit to Dawit Abebe’s painting studio on a recent morning was, to put it bluntly, a bit boring. The room, which he shares with two other artists in a nondescript building down a dirt alleyway in the center of Addis Ababa, was remarkably bare for the workplace of a successful artist: a few blank canvases stacked against the back wall and a lone, large, paint-splattered canvas on an easel.

When asked what the piece was meant to represent, Mr. Abebe, wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and a large silver Ethiopian Orthodox cross necklace, laughed heartily: “It’s the canvas I use to clean my brushes.”

The fact that Mr. Abebe’s studio space was empty is a mark of success. He had recently taken a few works to the Netherlands for an exhibition, and he had shipped off the rest to his London gallerist, Kristin Hjellegjerde, who was taking them to the Volta art fair in New York in early March, where she sold all 13 of them.

The two met over Facebook a few years ago, after Ms. Hjellegjerde read an article about Mr. Abebe, who had just set up his account after a friend recommended that it might help broaden his career outside of Ethiopia.

“I checked out what she did and with whom, and got a feel for her work,” said Mr. Abebe, who, after being taken on by Ms. Hjellegjerde’s gallery, was featured in a group show last year at the Saatchi Gallery in London. “If you use technology properly, it helps to promote you, to expose your work in an international way.”

A growing number of sub-Saharan African artists are realizing the importance and potency of technology — social media, apps, websites and online platforms focused on the promotion and archiving of African contemporary art.

Smartphones, tablets and even satellite television have also played a role, showing artists that despite the crushing lack of artistic infrastructure across the region — including few strong commercial and noncommercial art galleries, museums not focused on promoting and exhibiting contemporary art and a general lack of curatorial practice, artist residencies and good art schools — there are still ways to reach out and get the attention of art managers, critics, collectors and gallerists across the region and the world.

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