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ZOMA: A Museum Is Born

Jennifer Harley

Photo: Jennifer Harley

ZOMA Museum is a contemporary art museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In August 2018 I had the opportunity to visit the museum while it was still under construction and speak with curator, cultural anthropologist, and cofounder Meskerem Assegued, and artist, architect, and cofounder Elias Sime, as well as law student and assistant Anatoli Bulti. I reconnected with Meskerem just before the March 24th opening of the museum to learn more about how and why ZOMA came to be, and the central role education plays at ZOMA.

Jennifer Harley: Can you start by telling me, briefly, what is ZOMA?

Meskerem Assegued: ZOMA is a museum. It is a museum with a school and an artist-in-residence program where artists and architects from around the world will be invited to design and construct more than forty bridges that will stretch above the irrigation channels in the gardens that surround the museum.

JH: The museum’s buildings, designed and built by artist Elias Sime and yourself, are all so striking. I know it was important to you to use vernacular Ethiopian building techniques. How did you become interested in incorporating them into the museum?

MA: I traveled many years ago with my kids, and what impressed me the most were vernacular buildings where people were still living adjacent to the historic sites in Ethiopia. Stone buildings with flat roofs, stone with earth roofs, and others built with a whole range of different techniques. They were still standing after so many years, I thought, something was right about these construction techniques! I started photographing them and talked to the people inside who always told me that they were built by their great-great-great grandfathers. It became very addictive and I started looking for more, and once your eyes start catching them you see them everywhere. Since then it has been my dream to build a museum using vernacular architecture, even though I had nothing to build it with, neither land nor money. When we finally got a piece of land in Addis Ababa we started buying any land that came adjacent to it, piece by piece. Elias, who sculpted the walls of the museum buildings, learned about structural engineering from his late father, a foreman of the Ethiopian road authority. He is a central reason why we were able to build the museum with vernacular architecture.

JH: What role does the museum play in preserving those building techniques?

MA: Mud is the most environmentally sound, healthy, longlasting, and thoughtful building material in every way. The question is how do we modernize it, how do we bring it into the twenty-first century? The knowledge is here and I want to encourage that. We have a lot of young people who have worked on the construction, which is quite surprising. They come from the countryside, many of them started school for the first time after they worked with us. I want them to get paid more, to become specialists who can teach more people to do it. It is very, very important knowledge and it should not die. The museum is really the one place where it can be kept alive. It is a creative center and people come to see not only the artwork but the building as well. We also have the training center for vernacular architecture that will hopefully attract young architects to this knowledge.

JH: Last time I saw you were headed to Eritrea for a trip to celebrate the United Nations peace agreement and the newly opened borders. What do you think your new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s influence will be on the arts and art spaces such as ZOMA?

MA: Oh, we are already feeling its effect. Our permits are going smoother and we are getting more recognition. This change is coming from the government. For the first time, the Addis Ababa City Culture and Tourism Bureau gave us an award for our accomplishments and also for being the first private museum in the city. It has been very positive for us, it makes us feel like we can do more.

JH: ZOMA not only has education spaces as part of the museum’s building, but it also has a full school! That is really unique. Why did you decide that having a school as part of ZOMA was important?

MA: It is so important to start fresh from the base with little kids because they need guidance. When they come to our school, they will learn how to plant, cook, paint, milk cows—and think. They will also learn patience, by seeing a seed from the time it is put into the ground until the green grows out of the ground. This year we only have kindergartners. It is amazing to see their personalities transform because they can’t wait to come to school, they can’t wait to explore and dig into the ground.

Photo: Jennifer Harley

It is so important to start fresh from the base with little kids because they need guidance. When they come to our school, they will learn how to plant, cook, paint, milk cows—and think.

JH: There is nothing like the energy of kindergartners to keep things exciting! The curriculum for your
school is rooted in the pioneering work of Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard Project. Why was food access and knowledge so important to your mission for the museum and school?

MA: Absolutely, absolutely, this woman is magic. It is an ancient system that she brought to life and to this modern world. By really bringing food into the school and having children cook, she transformed their whole behavior and turned kids into lovers. The museum is in Mekanisa, which is located in the city of Addis Ababa but at the same time it is kind of hidden, because it mostly consists of city farmland. Nobody thought that anything could happen with that land but Elias and I really liked the idea of building a museum on land that was already a farm and emphasizing the connection a between the museum, the school, art, and the environment. The museum is adjacent to the Akaki River, which feeds our gardens and all the farms nearby via a channeling system. We clean the water using natural purification techniques like reefs and sand purification systems. Elias and I worked hard on making the landscape both visually attractive and functional at the same time. The dream from the start was to incorporate the indigenous, endemic plants, and the medicinal plants you saw.

JH: As you know The Studio Museum in Harlem has its own building project and we are all thinking very deeply about our connection and collaboration with our neighbors in Harlem. How have you collaborated with the people who live immediately around you in Mekanisa?

MA: Once people in our neighborhood saw what was happening, their support was overwhelming. We have so many of the neighborhood kids at the school, and for our community it has been a great surprise to have a museum and library in the neighborhood. Having your neighbors on your side is always important. Neighbors are closer than family because they are the first ones to respond when you need them, they are next door to you, which is the way it should be.

For more information visit zomamuseum.org and follow their Instagram @zoma.museum

—Jennifer Harley

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Photo: Jennifer Harley

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