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The untold story of Ale Felegeselam’s stay in Adama town, his grand legacy in Ethiopian arts | Addis Zeybe

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“He loved children and never tired of responding to every question we asked him. What he painted on the church’s walls was like magic to me and I never left his side. For me, sitting on the floor of the church and watching Ale paint the dome was elation,” says Abiy Solomon, a journalist, recalling Ale Felegeselam’s stay in Adama nearly 3 decades ago.

Abiy was raised in Adama’s St. Mary’s Church neighborhood. Adama is a town located 100 km from the capital Addis Ababa. 

“I used to go to St. Mary’s when I got back from school,” he says, fondly recalling the unforgettable episode of his childhood and how Ale’s masterpieces unfolded before his eyes on the walls of the church.

The renowned Ethiopian painter, Ale Felegeselam Hiruy, was the founder of Addis Ababa’s School of Fine Arts. After he left his administrative role at the school in 1974, he worked at the Ministry of Culture for five years, in the heritage maintenance unit. 

He later quit that job too as he was in disagreement with the government at the time. 

In the early 1990s, Ale made a deal with the administration of St. Mary’s Church in Adama to paint the walls. He stayed in Adama until the mid-2000s.    

Deacon Tefera Begashaw has served at St. Mary’s cathedral for years. He remembers that the new building of the church started giving service in 1988 before the finishing work was completed. 

“The painter, Ale, came after the church started giving service. I was usually around him when he painted the walls. He got paid 500 ETB (about 9.5 USD with the current exchange rate) per square meter. He told me that he was 67 at the time.”

The deacon also remembers that the painting took eight years to finish. What strikes him the most is that Ale didn’t do the painting on a canvas and then plaster it on the wall. “He did the whole painting on the walls, up to the dome,” he says.        

Ale had a maid who helped him with chores at home when he lived in Adama. He loved fishing and doing sports, according to deacon Tefera.  

The painter was known to have little social life, keeping to himself for most of the time and working on his paintings.  

A young painter and resident of Adama, Tsegaw Abraham, remember that his elder brother, the painter Amanuel Abraham, spent a lot of time with Ale when he was in Adama. 

Tsegaw calls Ale ‘Ababa’; it means father. Though his recollection of the prominent painter has dimmed with time, Tsegaw says his brother Amanuel worked as an assistant of Ale through the 1990s.    

“When Amanuel went to the school of arts, Ababa needed an assistant and I took over,” says Tsegaw, recalling his excitement.  

Ale had a different lifestyle, according to Tsegaw. 

“He was in his 60s when he lived here in Adama. He loved fishing and used to drive to Wonji, Soderie, and Koka areas to fish. Sometimes, he went as far as the River Jema in the Selale area.”

Apart from fishing, Tsegaw says Ale loved beekeeping. 

“He started beekeeping to give himself an extra means of income after his retirement,” says Tsegaw, remembering he had hives in his own compound.

Tsegaw says Ale also kept the bee hives in the area called Tankegna, which was found behind the Defence Force Camp in Adama. 

“The area is mountainous, and suitable for beekeeping. The exact compound he put the bee hives in belonged to the famous Ethiopian actress, Jemanesh Solomon, and her musician brother Abiyu Solomon,” says Tsegaw.     

Tsegaw recalls that Ale liked spending time with Abiyu Solomon and that the two used to sit together and talk for hours.  

Ale had given his bee hives to different people as a gift on his return to Addis Ababa. 

When he told us about Ale’s love for Yoga, Tsegaw says: “He used to stand on his head and move his legs in the air. He also folded his legs and did yoga. Though he was old, he was active and agile.”  

When concluding his remarks on the renowned painter, Tsegaw says: “I learned being fully focused on my work and giving all I can to my profession from Ababa.” He and Ale parted ways when the painter came to Addis. 

Zewdu Bireda is the other person whom Addis Zeybe interviewed about Ale Felegeselam. He had met the painter in Adama for a brief time in 2000. 

“He kept to himself. I used to go to his house and he used to give me assignments. He didn’t meet with a lot of people. He spent his days working alone,” says Zewdu, emphasizing how Ale had impacted his professional life. 

Zewdu was into painting and crafting (carving) and he used to visit Ale so the painter would give him comments on his works. He says those comments had enhanced his skills. 

Zewdu says Ale was a great teacher and that he had books written about sculpture too. He remembers Ale used to show him the works of great artists like Michaelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and others and gave him advice on how to improve his skills. 

“His passion to help young professionals learn more was immense. He saw my interests and got me registered at Artist Eshetu Tiruneh’s art school. Eshetu was Ale’s student and he got me a scholarship there. But I couldn’t attend due to personal reasons.”

Ale and July

Ale had a special connection with the month of July. He was born on July 31, 1923, in the then Shewa Province, Fiche town. His long and glamorous artistic journey ended on July 11, 2016, when he passed away in Addis Ababa at the age of 93. 

Ale Felegeselam established the first school of arts in Ethiopia on July 23, 1958. It was inaugurated on the 66th birthday of Emperor Haileselassie.   

The school of arts was first named Addis Ababa University School of Arts. Its name was changed to Ale School of Fine Arts in July 2010. 

Sentenced to death as a young man

In the interviews he did, Ale mentioned that his grandfather, Hiruy, encouraged him to go to church school and enter the priesthood instead of doing paintings. Because of this, he attended the Ethiopian Orthodox Church school and received his deacon rank. However, he had to go back home and resume living with his grandfather when the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1936. 

During the Ethiopian Millennium (2008 G.C), a magazine entitled “Demakochu”, meaning The Magnificent Ones, covered the life history of 20 prominent Ethiopians, interviewing each of them. 

In this magazine, Ale narrated what happened to him during the Italian occupation.  

It was right after the Italians invaded Ethiopia. One day, I sneaked out of home without my grandfather seeing me. I was with a friend. We joined kids that were playing nearby. An Italian servant saw the stick I was holding and ordered me to give it to him. Before I said anything, my friend told the servant to leave me alone. The servant got angry and hit him on the head with his stick. My friend fell down. 

I got mad and hit the servant on the head with my stick and he fell as well. My friend and I then ran home. We later heard the Italian servant had died. The next day I got arrested. I was in jail for four days without food and water. I was finally told that I got the death sentence and was taken to a forest with other prisoners.   

When we got to the woods, they ordered us to dig our own graves. I looked around and noticed the area had a valley. The Italian soldiers were standing behind us, armed. They were talking and smoking. I thought I could try to run and escape since I was going to die anyway. I threw away my spade and ran down the valley. I heard gunshots behind me. I then hid in the shrubs and kept quiet. I heard the soldiers saying I would die anyway, falling into the valley and they left. My family thought I was dead and were mourning. They knew I was alive after a long while. 

Ale and his legacy

Those who knew Ale Felegeselam, his contemporaries and students, jointly agree on one thing about the painter – that he was a painter that mixed modern art with indigenous one. 

He was the founder of the first art and design school, the Ale School of Fine Arts. 

In 1942, when the Italian invading force was defeated and left Ethiopia, Ale came to Addis Ababa with his uncle and attended elementary school.   

Ale was one of the first graduates of modern arts. He first graduated as a machinist in 1951 from Addis Ababa Technical School. He then got a scholarship from Emperor Haile Selassie and attended the Chicago School of Fine Arts in the United States. He graduated with Bachelor’s Degree in Arts in 1954 and returned to Ethiopia the following year after taking pedagogy on teaching arts for one more year. 

After his return, Ale was hired at the Ministry of Education and spent years preparing children’s lesson books. 

With the money he saved from his part-time jobs in the US, Ale rented a warehouse and started teaching art to young adults. 

This effort was realized later when he was able to open a regular art school which was put under the administration of Addis Ababa University. 

Arts in his bloodline?

Ale’s mother was Atsede Desta and his father, Felegeselam Hiruy. His father, uncle, and grandfather were all painters. They were known both by the state and the church. 

While his predecessors were known for their traditional paintings, Ale became famous for his modern art. 

Hiruy Woldegiorgis, Ale’s grandfather, painted the walls of Fiche’s St. George church a century ago. Painting the walls means decorating the inside walls of the church with different holy personalities from the stories of the Bible. 

The administrator of the area, including Fiche town, was Ras Darge Sahle Selassie and Hiruy did the painting with the direct order of the administrator. When he finished the work, he was given the rank of fatherhood in the church and he lived in Fiche henceforth, married and with kids.

Hiruy was among the artistic giants during the reign of Emperor Minilik. He painted the portraits of the Emperor, and the then-famous cathedrals in Addis Ababa, Entoto Kidane Mihret, and Entoto Raguel. Not only he was a leading painter of the time, Hiruy – Ale’s grandfather, was also a religious father at St. George church of Dima, Gojjam. 

Hiruy’s two sons, Felegeselam and Em’aelaf – Ale’s father and uncle respectively, were also both painters. The former Ethiopian radio personality, Abera Lema, said that Ale’s father and uncle did different paintings on the school’s walls he learned at in Fiche town. 

The two brothers also decorated the walls of St. George churches in Fiche and Addis Ababa, Abera Lema remembers.

Felegeselam alone was known for his writings of the scripture on parchment while Em’aelaf worked at the first publishing company of Ethiopia, Birhan ena Selam (Light and Peace). 

Em’aelaf’s name is mentioned along with the Ethiopian artistic giants, Negadras Tessema Eshete, Agegnehu Engida, and World Laureate, Maitre Artist Afework Tekle. 

Ale, following the footprints of his grandfather, father, and uncle, decorated the walls of different churches in Ethiopia. These churches are The Holy Trinity, Gofa Gebriel, Merkato St. Michael, Merkato St. Raguel, Adama’s St. Mary, and Kulbi Gebriel. He also did the painting of the Holy Savior Cathedral of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Washington DC. 

Ale got married to his wife, Aster Kiflezgi, in 1957 and had a daughter, Meseret, and a son, Tewodros. Tsegaw – Ale’s assistant in Adama -, told us that Meseret currently lives in Germany and that Tewodros has passed away.   

He said Ale’s children didn’t take up their father’s profession but there’s a grandchild who’s a painter. 

Ale, back to Art School

After the Emperor was overthrown in mid-1970s by the military Derg, Ale couldn’t reconcile himself with the revolutionary government. That was why he left the school he established himself. But in the early 1990s, he was called back to his school. 

Assistant Professor Bekele Mekonen, a painter, sculptor and poet, was the one who heard that Ale was living in Adama town and went to the town and fetched Ale back to Addis. Ale drove to Addis Ababa to teach at the School of Fine Arts and Design regularly. 

Ale’s art exhibitions and awards

Of all his exhibitions, the one that was inaugurated by Princess Tenagnework Haile Selassie (during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie) was the most memorable as it was a stepping-stone for the establishment of his art school. 

Ale was able to establish his school of arts with 28,000 ETB sale of artworks presented at the exhibition, a 50,000 ETB grant from a Greek fan of his work, and a 150,000 ETB grant provided by the Ethiopian government. 

In 1960, he held an exhibition called Contemporary Art of Ethiopia in Moscow, Russia, and another art exhibition in 1968 in Montreal, Canada. 

Ale was recognized for his works and awarded different prizes for his painting exhibitions in the United States, Germany, India, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Greek, and Yugoslavia. 

During the Ethiopian Millennium, a US-based institution called SEED awarded Ale for his immense contributions and efforts to teach arts. 

The school of fine arts and design and its controversial naming 

“Ale” Literarily translated as “He said, He searched for Peace”, Ale Felegeselam’s name was not a usual Ethiopian name and people often get confused with it. This was evident in the naming of the art school. 

According to Assistant Professor Bekele, Addis Ababa School of Arts was later changed into Ale School of Fine Arts as the school made a plea to the then president of Addis Ababa University, Professor Andrias Eshete.  

After the university senate passed it, the name “Addis Ababa University School of Fine Arts” changed to “Ale School of Fine Arts and Design”. However, Ale was not happy with this as he wanted the school to be named after his full name, “Ale Felegeselam Hiruy”. 

Ale passed away on July 11, 2016, at the age of 93. A funeral program was held for him at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, and he was buried in Debre Libanos Monastery, about 60 km away from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. 

This artistic giant should have been recognized for his work. His contributions should have been documented and be made lessons to the new generations. This will be an assignment to be carried out for Addis Ababa University, professionals in the field of fine arts, his fans and his family. 

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Translated and Co-written by Hiwot Walelign (Senior Content Editor)

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