Sari Middernacht

Addis Ababa is not for nostalgic people these days

The newly-built Addis Ababa Light Rail Transit train fly-over pulls over and destroys streets and historical squares, while condominiums and commercial centres sprout like mushrooms. This construction fever threatens and demolishes, of course, whole neighbourhoods. One might wonder why the capital city of a nation whose culture dates more than a thousand years old seems so eagerly in need of modernity? And, more specifically, when it comes to its heritage, why a nation with a tradition of reclaiming monuments such as the Obelisk of Axum , the Lion of Judah, or the Thrones of the Emperor Haile Selassie and the Empress Menen––equivalent to Mugabe's reclaiming the emblematic stone birds and their return to the Great Zimbabwe site in the 1980s––authorises the demolition of the city's historical sites for the sake of urban development?

Are heritage professionals per definition nostalgic? Yes, in a certain way. So, it is quite a confrontational experience to walk around Addis and witness these urban interventions where destruction stares one in the face. Nevertheless, it stimulates observation and critical reflection about issues related to heritage and in-built memories in rapidly changing cities. Seen from that viewpoint, Addis is being transformed into a city of installations, in an artistic way of speaking, where historical sites are deliberately taunted by modernity.

As if by coincidence, the light railway project––considered to be the best solution for the city's traffic congestion problems––destroys, sometimes physically, but always visually some of the city's most emblematic squares: Meskal Square, the square of La Gare, Mexico Square, all situated in one axe in the southern part of the city centre, and the Abune Petros Square more towards the north. The population of Addis Ababa is watching the changes in their city with a critical eye––not least Fasil Giorghis, Bekele Mekonnen and Michael Tsegaye who, during the conference, make us see what has disappeared and what is emerging in their place.

Mexico Square and Abune Petros Square are both historical sites, where the Ethiopian resistance against the Italian fascist invasion is commemorated. The statue of Abune Petros, an Ethiopian bishop who was executed by the Italians in 1936––in that square named after him––because he publicly denounced colonialism and the terrors of Italian occupation, was removed because of the railway works. It now stands in the garden of the National Museum, a few meters away from the Olmec Head which likewise had been removed from the demolished Mexico Square. This square symbolizes the alliance between Mexico and Ethiopia, after Mexico had shown support when Ethiopia presented its case to the League of Nations during the Italian occupation. Both statues are said to have been removed on a temporary basis and will be re-installed on their original sites after construction work is completed. However, some of their main features have been demolished, as is the case with the mosaic fountain in Mexico Square. A single wing has been brought to the garden of Alle School of Arts; its image features on the poster for the FUTURE MEMORIES conference.

Wing of the mosaic fountain of Mexico Square, garden of Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, Addis Ababa.

Destruction means ‘visible emptiness’, and provokes strong reactions, but what about making things invisible?

La Gare, the more than a century-old station built by the French to link Addis Ababa and the port of Djibouti with the Chemin de fer Djibouto-Ethiopien,1 faces the Lion of Judah, and marks the end of one of the city's important visual axes––a kind of monument per se. The lion, the symbol of the monarchy, was removed by the Italians and later repatriated in the 1960s, was highly contested during the Derg revolution; today its faces the railway station from close by.

Gambia Street corner Ras Mekonen Street in the direction of the City Hall, Addis Ababa.

It is commonly understood that to appreciate monuments in their space they need to ‘breathe’; the ambient space around them is as important as the object itself. With the railway, this breathing space is cut off. The monument is obstructed. The lion's triumphal pose shrinks away. Further on, the train viaduct impertinently bridges Meskal Square, well-known as a gathering place for festivals, political events, religious festivities and a training ground for athletes. The tracks run close to Mengistu Haile Mariam’s balcony, the place from where he used to give his speeches. The balcony was thereafter closed and a text in Amharic written on the walls. Translated into English: “Our Renaissance Journey will never be impeded by extremists’ fantasy!” Passing right in front of the balcony, the light railway now completely cuts off the balcony from the rest of the square, alive and busy as always. On the other side of the square, the brand new “Red Terror” Martyrs’ Memorial Museum,2 underlines the atrocities during Mengistu’s regime.

By concealing the balcony, the city developers seem to avoid removing it from the site, but make instead a colossal intervention, tracing the light railway just in front of it. I see it like a contemporary art installation, an attempt to profane the site. Heritage amateurs might interpret it like an attempt to create a dialogue without destroying the old unwanted monument––as Cynthia Kros said. The idea came to her as she viewed the South African Freedom Park, the new site in Pretoria region (Tshwane) with the //hapo Museum3 built right in front of the Voortrekker Monument, the monument par excellence in Afrikaner history.

A certain analogy can be drawn between Ethiopia, the ‘uncolonised’ African country, and South Africa, the most recently liberated country on the continent. Undoubtedly, both countries have been marked by revolutions, the new regime wanting to destroy the heroes of the defeated by building that which Khwezi Gule called in his contribution as “new decorum monuments”. This zeal to tell ‘never again’-scenarios is exactly what one finds in The “Red Terror” Martyrs’ Memorial Museum. Gule, director of the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Soweto, Greater Johannesburg, shares with us his challenge of going beyond the idea of ‘we know what we are against, but not yet what we aspire to’, referring to the actual discomfort in the ANC about dealing with memories. He questions what the Hector Pieterson Memorial, sited right in the middle of the community, is supposed to communicate; if it speaks the language of the street, or the language of the power; and, how people who historically were excluded from public life, could now have access to what happens when it comes to creating places of memory.

Public monuments show-off the powers to be and tell (mostly) official histories. One might ask: Is there in the rebuilt city, ruled by the révolution de la modernité (to use the language of the DRC government programme implemented in cities like Kinshasa in the same drastic way) and capitalistic dynamism rather than by kings, emperors and revolutionary leaders, a power vacuum of strong individuals and ideas? If so, is there also space for blind spots, as Cynthia Kros and George Pfruender put it, joining Premesh Lalu's academic and museological actions of giving the unheard a voice, and a possibility to go towards a community of memories instead of one common history?

N'Goné Fall reveals recent fiascos such as Bamako’s Alpha Oumar Konaré monuments and Dakar’s African Renaissance Monument, while Stacy Hardy's performance lecture confirms the efforts and the traps. But, if it's not a given to create space for pluralistic memories, where can people take it over?

The interventions at the conference made me think of the research made by the architectural historian Johan Lagae on recent developments in cultural heritage, especially in post-colonial contexts, considering that “cultural heritage is indeed always a ‘social construct’ to which multiple values are ascribed in dynamic processes of (re-)appropriation and negotiation” and by accepting “such an open-ended and dynamic understanding of built heritage”, he emphasises the importance of independent artistic initiatives by those for whom it forms their everyday environment in an approach of working with the multiple stakeholders in these places.4 Art interventions such as Ato Malinda's performances, Jimmy Ogonga's Amnesia, Picha's Rencontres Picha. Biennale de Lubumbashi and Revolution Room, Marilyn Douala Bell's Doual'Art and Salon Urbain de Doula, Alya Sebti's Marakesh Biennale V, and Doung Anwar Jahangeer's CityWalk initiative are very pertinent practices, taking place right in the middle of the environment they want to commemorate and celebrate, outlining interesting tracks of reaction to uniformity.

Ethiopian artistic creation doesn't run behind in its research for reconnection. The artist Mihret Kebede creates surprising interventions both in her individual work as with the Netsa Art Village. This village, a green oasis on one of Addis' woody hills, is a place for encounter and exchange. With the rising price of real estate, this green space, as well as the cheerful coffee-and-beer gardens around Yohannis Street in the city centre, have become endangered. But the Ethiopians' sense of sharing public space seems strong. The Neighbours by KLA ART 014 award winning video artist Mulugeta Gebrekidan, is a metaphor of this strong will and testifies to how even the light railway operates as a “milieu de mémoire”5 when neighbours gather for a traditional cup of Ethiopian coffee on the almost finished platform of the railway. Gebrekidan gives even the most nostalgic among us an alternative to the charm of cobbled streets and wooden balconies of the best-coffee-bar-in-town area in Addis.


1 See (5.1.2015).
2 See (5.1.2015).
3 (5.1.2015).
4 Lagae, Johan: “Curating the city of Lubumbashi, DR Congo. On the “positionality” of architectural history in a postcolonial context” (2014), paper presented at the international symposium Architectural history as [applied] science, Leuven, 1 October 2010 (Proceedings to be published by University Press, Leuven in 2015).
5 See (10.1.2015) Referring to the less well-known term by Pierre Nora, when memory is inhabited by the people and their acts are the memory, the lieu de mémoire is needless. See the introduction “La fin de l'histoire-mémoire” to “Entre Mémoire et Histoire. La problématique des lieux." In: Les Lieux de mémoire, tome 1, La République. Paris 1984, XVII-XLII.
Sari Middernacht (1979, Belgium) is museologist and exhibition producer. She studied African Languages and Cultures at the University of Ghent and at the Istituto Orientale in Naples, Italy. From 2003 until 2013, she worked at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren, Belgium) while freelancing on contemporary African art and literature projects. Currently living between Lubumbashi and Johannesburg, she works on art projects, research and exchanges between both cities.

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