At the recently concluded FNB Joburg Art fair in South Africa, East Africa was made a focus and Ethiopia was one of the spotlighted countries. The Focus on East Africa was to highlight a transformational moment in East Africa’s art scene and to facilitate a transnational dialogue. Amongst artists selected to represent Ethiopia through the Addis Foto Fair established by Aida Muluneh, is a young photographer, Aron Simeneh. The need for transnational dialogues was instantly scored as Simeneh’s photography caught our attention, especially The Patriots series and the story behind it.
Ethiopia’s history is a rich one, spanning over thousands of years and stretching across dynasties and kingdoms. It is the only country in Africa that has never been colonized. One of the markers in the timeline of Ethiopia’s great history is the Second Italo-Abyssinian War which occurred between 1935 and 1936 when the Ethiopian empire was invaded by the kingdom of Italy, interrupting Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign and subsequently initiating an occupation that halted Ethiopia’s long legacy of sovereignty.
Exactly five years after the occupation, on the 5th of May 1941, Selassie returned, making a grand entrance into the capital city, Addis Ababa, to make the end of the Italian occupation. This date became The Patriots’ Victory Day, an Ethiopian holiday set aside to honour the veterans who fought in the resistance movement. Government leaders, diplomats, patriot associations, and city residents turn out for the celebration and the solemn wreath-laying ceremonies held at war memorials and monuments throughout the country.
In The Patriots Story an ongoing project which began in 2015, Aron Simeneh, highlights this part of Ethiopia’s history. His childhood was filled with endless stories of the war and the eventual liberation of the Ethiopian people by veterans like his grandfather who took part in the patriotic resistance. The project is inspired by the need to document the story of his grandfather and the untold stories of other living Ethiopian patriots who proudly fought against the Italian army during the five-year occupation (1935-1941) in Ethiopia under the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini.
After capturing the patriot’s victory parade and ceremony, Simeneh sets up a photographic studio and, with a collaborative approach, begins making the portraits. The studio environment helps isolate his subjects from distractions and affords him the intimacy needed to interact with them as he documents their stories. He then visits his subjects in their homes to deliver the prints which further strengthens his relationship with the patriots’ community as most photographers do not return to give them photos taken during the ceremony.
Aron Simeneh believes in the medium of portraiture as the most effective in storytelling. He also has a passion for documenting music concerts and festivals. His works have been exhibited at the New York Photo Ville, the Bamako Photography Biennial and the Jo’burg Art Fair. Under the mentorship of the photographer Aida Muluneh, he has been developing his practice and also organizing workshops with the Desta for Africa Centre. The Patriots Story is currently showing at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London and will be shown at the Addis Foto Fest.