Achamyeleh Debela

Professor of Art & Director of Computing Center for the Arts,

North Carolina Central University, Charlotte, NC


Early Childhood

I was born in 1949 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the Merkato neighborhood known as Teklai Biro. I have a rather vivid recollection of my childhood. I remember Yeneta Asdegdeg and fellow students Nunu, Buta, Tadele and Mengistu Jembere, Teshale and Gebeyehou Worsa, Taddess Wolde Giorgis, Eshete Gebeyehou, Tariku Biratu and many others with whom I had the privilege of spending part of my "kes temari bet" years. I remember staying a year behind school before going to the ferenje (inglise temari bet) because my father was working in Adigrat and later in Gondar as director of the post office.

The year I finished (Dawit Medgam) was spent with Degaga whom I have known as the shepherd who would collect cows from several houses along the road leading from Shawel Dema seffer all the way to Ras Hailu Meda. Degaga made certain conversation with the heard that steered them to smoothly fall in place as they came out of the various households in the neighborhood. I followed Degaga and his cows to Ras Hailu Meda and brought them back towards the end of the day to their owners. As a child I was fascinated how the cows knew when to come out on Degaga's approach and when to go back to their house when he brought them back. Between Degaga and some fond memories of learning soccer with (yecherk kwass) and playing kulf & later marble (beyi) with children who were hanging out as I was or those who skipped school, my time was somewhat occupied.

On the Way to the First Meskerem Asra Smnt (September 18 - First Day of School)

One June morning, two well-dressed kids from the neighborhood, Ashenafi and Wosenyelesh Biratu, were passing by my house. I was sitting and eating some "koshim" that I had collected the day before while with Degaga, the two kids approached and asked what I was eating and I told them. Ashenafi was holding a piece of paper very tight in one hand and I inquired what it was and he bragged and told me that their dad the Fitawrari has written a letter to the director of the Prince Wossen Seged School asking him to register them for September. I asked if I could read it and they said they would let me read it only if I gave them some Koshim that I obligingly did. While they were busy fighting on a handful of koshim I added my name to the list on the letter and gave it back. They started walking towards the Directors house that was a couple of blocks from my house, and I began to follow them at a distance. One of them spotted me and shouted "go back!", I simply ignored that and continue following them. As they approached the fenced villa they knocked on the door and the Zebegna opened it. They told the Zebegna to not let me in. I approached the gate and the zebegna, who new me in the village paid no attention to the children and let me in shortly after they went in the house. The director was in bed and was reading the letter sent by the Fitawrari and Ashenafi and Wosenyelesh were standing attentively. When he got to the list of names he began to read them allowed. Both children responded "that is me" and/or "Abet." All that time I was standing outside piping through the crack of the bedroom door. When he got to my name he posed and called out Ach..a m yeleh, and I jumped in and began to plead. Ashenafi and Wosenyelesh insisted on telling him that I cheated and my name was not on the letter. Ato Kebede knew that because my hand writing was hardly legible. He any how told us to show up on Meskerem 18th at the school ground. I wanted to kiss his feet but they were tacked inside the bed. I will never forget how happy and excited I was that day. I left the two kids and run to my house to tell the news to my mother. Ashenafi and Wosenyelesh were threatening to tell their dad about what I did. At that point I did not care to argue, I just took of with a sprint. I got home fast only to discover that my mom has gone to Merkato gebeya, it was the longest wait. When mom came back from the market, all she can say was: "what are you grinning about?" Of course I told her what happened, she did not believe it and said: "you stop it right now, you don't have to make up stories, you will get to school when your dad comes back to town."

Well, come September 18, I went to Wossen Seged elementary at the time known as Prince Mekonen elementary. Someone read my name and I began a new journey with a loud "Abet". For whatever reason, ever since I remember I have always made drawings. At Wossen Seged, I was the artist for my class mates and some times' students in higher grades asked that I do illustrations for biology or geography classes. Some for a price such as a loaf of bread (a corn bread or Yadeshe Bekolo) as we called it after the lady who use to make these breads behind the school ground. It may sound silly but just the other day I found a photograph taken in 1962 with my seventh grade classmates and I remembered most every one and I wanted to give the list here simply because some of them may be member of EEDN and who knows they might surprise me. In addition I have a stronger reason for the list. I have been partly molded by my daily interactions during those early impressionistic years. For that part of my life these friends wore and are a mosaic representation of Ethiopians of all persuasions. Even if they were young they were, as it wore chips of the big block. Hence they contributed towards the early nuances of my character and mannerism as did the many other encounters I had at various stages of my life. In other words a portion of my Ethiopianity was ingrained because of that experience. I remember:

Tahsas 16, 1953 (E. C), 7-th Grade Students; Prince Wossen Seged Elementary School


1. Woudnesh Haile

2. Neria Taera

3. Tadele

4. Tsehay Haile Giorgis

5. Waleligne Endashaw

6. Legesse Almaw

7. Zewdu Ambese

8. Tesfaye Abebe

9. Mekonen Eriesom

10. Hailu Wolde

11. Ato Menkir our 7-th grade teacher, (German) was a nick name given to him because he was a serious and meticulous individual who also frowned most of the time.

12. Tekle Gabra Selassie

13. Tegane Tadesse

14. Asfaw Wake

15. Hassan Siraj

16. Aseffa ?

17. Aseffa Abate

18. Ayeletch Tesfa

19. Solomon 'Gobit'

20. Kebede (Tolosa) Wolda Mariam

21. Tigist Taera

22. Getachew Wodajo

23. Teshome Ejigu

24. Gizaw Wako

25. Solomon Desta

26. Achamyeleh Debela

27. Nigussie Aberra

28. Tamiru Getaneh

29. Seifu Abebe

30. Abdulahi Abdulhafiz

31. Kabede Ourga

32. Redi Balo

33. Tariku Biratu

34. ? .

I remember Netsere WoldeSelassie who was our gymnastics teacher and Eshetu Gallo who was our soccer coach.

Beginnings of the Artistic Years

Whenever my father had the opportunity to come to Addis and stay with us he used to make lots of drawings. He made drawings of people and objects. He had a passion for sketching and occasionally painting. I was impressed and at the same time proud of his talent. Hence you could say my dad was my early inspiration towards art. My friend Kebede (Tola) Wolde Mariam introduced me to the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts in early 1963 and I told Yohannes Gedamu who is today a famous artist in his own right in Colon, Germany about it and all three of us from Merkato ended up studying art for the next five years. The Addis Ababa Fine Arts School is located at Arat Killo behind Emperor Menelik High School.

I had the privilege of studying under the Ethiopian artist and Poet extraordinary Gebre Kristos Desta, as well as Ale Felege Selam, Yigezu Bisrat, Tadesse Gizaw and others. I learned most of my foundation about art and developed a sense of becoming an artist as a result of my experience at the School of Fine Arts. I also made some life long friends from my years at that school. Incidentally this is to date the only Art School in the whole country, it is you could say The Institution that has trained and has given birth to the artists of the entire Ethiopian empire. It served all aspiring talents who came from all over Ethiopia; that is until recent times. On my last visit to the school I learned that it was threatened by a new policy that will soon advocate the implementation of a policy that would limit its service to only Zone #14 or Addis Ababans and/or the Shoa kilil. Which means the rest of Ethiopia has to wait until similar schools are established or have nothing at all. This is a school that deserves promotion to a level of a National Art Academy or should be affiliated with the University. With appropriate academic and curricular & programmatic development it can help many who would like to pursue a college level study in Studio and Visual Art and or Art Education. Sadly the school had no repairs of any kind in the last 20 some years and it was in a dilapidated stage with a number of its outer studios practically in ruins.

Be that as it may, it is here that I began to show promise. It is from here that I began to travel to the different destinations in Ethiopia. Every summer I managed to go to a province or some rural area. Some time times I followed a fellow student and stayed with his family and made sketches and made studies of the people flora and fauna. Some time I got lucky in that a relative happened to live at a certain part of the country and I was able to camp June through September. Usually at the end of my visit I had enough works that I would develop into paintings or drawings that were good enough for a show and I usually had a show a few months following the summer venture. This gave me an exposure to different cultures with in my home land. While I do not claim to be an expert about the places that I visited I could at least claim to have added to my nuances of who I am. An incident of significance in my artistic infancy was an experience I had as a second year student. I was studying human anatomy under Herbert Seiler when I came across a real human skull at a location in Gulale. I had just finished playing soccer and was heading home through Petros/Paulos where much digging associated with a road building was taking place. I picked up the rather clean and healthy skull and washed it at a near by river and took it home where I did a series of studies and decided that I will share my finding with my fellow students at the Art school. One afternoon I began my journey from Mesalemia area towards Arat Kilo. When I reached the old Paulos Hospital I heard a song by Little Richard that was played rather loud. It was laud enough to be heard by the road side. This was happening at the California Tea Room. I decided to have Tea and Pastie, and after words I went to the men's room leaving my treasure on the table raped in a news paper. Apparently someone got curious and opened the raping and probably scared themselves to death and left it as it was. I came out of the men's room paid my bills and continue towards school. By the time I reached the turn to Arategna police Tabia, two (nech lebashoch) under cover police picked me by my pits and drugged me all the way to the police station and presented me to a major who was in charge. They accused me of grave digging and intent to sell a skull to some imaginary foreigner. The major did not bother to ask instead concluded that I was guilty and made a remark to the extent of "what if it was a Dejazmach." At 16 I became a jail bird. A day later I was saved by the director of the school Ato Ale Felege Selam who made a call to a colonel friend of his. I told this story to the students and faculty of the Fine Arts School on my last visit and got quite a laugh. I graduated from the Art School in 1967 with distinction and started and became editor of the first magazine dedicated to art and the artist titled "Voice of the Artist".

The College Years

After graduation, I worked at the Ethiopian Tourist Organization at the Art and Publication department. After two years I had the opportunity to get an Inter African studies scholarship funded by the African American Institute and African Universities Association. I completed a BA/FA degree program in Painting and graphic arts at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria during the Gawan era. While a student in Nigeria, I had the opportunity to travel both within Nigeria and to other west African countries. It was, perhaps, the single most important accomplishment that gave me some grounding on the appreciation of cultures other than my own. Although an experiment at the time the inter-African studies program that was initiated by the African American Institute in cooperation with the African Universities Association that was based in Accra, Ghana was an excellent program. It allowed for students from diverse African countries to meet and exchange ideas and even make friends, some for life.

My next move was to pursue graduate studies, hence I wrote to the then Minister of Education Woizero Mary Tadesse, who promptly responded with a resounding no based on regulations requiring my return home and serve for an equal time spent for training before I was allowed to go to graduate school. This, I was not ready to do only because I knew how difficult it was the first time. I had a few shows in Nigeria where I was able to save enough for travel and left Nigeria to London. After a brief stay in England I proceeded to the US. I had an encounter with the world of dish washing and a few odd jobs in Washington D. C before I landed my first job as curator of the now James E. Lewis Museum at Morgan State University in Baltimore Maryland.

The Artist Meets the World of Computing

While at Morgan I completed an MA program in Museum Studies and Art History. As curator I made some contribution towards exhibitions, cataloging of the permanent collection and research as well as taught art classes. A few years later I joined the Maryland Institute College of Art's graduate school known as the Hoffburger School of Painting where I earned an MFA degree. For a short time I worked at the famous Walters Art Gallery as public relations and liaison person, also in Baltimore until I joined the faculty of the University of Maryland at the Eastern Shore campus. I taught there for about 8 years before moving to Ohio.

In Ohio I again went back to school and this time with an angle. I was seduced by the miracles of computer graphics and wanted to learn about it and use it to make art. To this end I spent a great deal of time learning this new language and medium. The Advanced Computing Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University happened to be one of the world renowned schools in computer graphics/animation and scientific visualization.

Computing and the Artist

At this center, I had the support and encouragement of faculty and administration. The lab was at once a life style, we spent day and night working on projects or learning something new. Most of the tools were developed in house and as soon as someone comes up with a new idea we were the guinea pigs. We worked with it, we pointed shortcomings and some times fixed bugs or if it was above our heads we mailed a fix it messages to the experts and it was fixed the next day or the next week. As much as it was a challenge it also provided me with a new way to express my ideas.

At first I was somewhat frustrated with what was produced. Also a lot has changed since earlier works in this field lacked in substance. Most works were results of fascination of the medium rather than content, meaning or substance. In other words computer graphics was about producing, silk projections of shiny and glittery surfaces that showed technical dexterity in refraction, reflection, bump-mapping, texture-mapping and other flying logo type presentations and short in creative art works worth contemplation and or appreciation. This does not mean that pioneering works were being done. The majority of works that were largely in bad taste were commercial by and large they still are. Although computer graphics is young as a field it is also the fastest growing and advancing field ever witnessed.

It is a field that I have chosen to work and a field that I would like to baptize with my culture. With my Ethiopian/African-ness, it so far suits me fine. I understand that this is an area that most of my colleagues (artists) in particular have not yet had the opportunity to explore and I also know that given the opportunity many will embrace it and can do creative and innovative miracle with it. This is a technology that is becoming part of our daily life perhaps with a large degree of difference in the West than in the so called Third World countries.

Views on Computing and IT Tools: The Human Side

If we look at the level of advancement in telecommunication and computing globally and we are committed to study and research in the field, we have no choice but to be involved. Whatever the degree of our involvement in technology we can not afford not to take advantage and enrich ourselves as well as others who would benefit from the research and creative out-put in the field. We will definitely succeed with the vast and diverse cultural and technical knowledge that we can bring to this enormously powerful instrumentarium. This is already evidenced because we are in the midst of it all. We are not bystanders, nor are we going to be just consumers but knowledgeable users and contributors to the building and advancement of this extraordinary human innovation. We cannot afford to let our people down and we will not allow domination and exploitation nor can we afford to blindly join without a struggle to be a part of the positive contributors of this technology for humanity as a whole and our people in particular. This of course is my two cents worth to those who enjoy leaving the human drama through programs of the so called New World Order; An order that is presently testing its experiment around "isms" such as fundamentalism and ethnocentrism.

Highlights of Professional Activity

As a practicing artist and art educator I have successfully carried out the following: (Please note that this is reflective of activities within the last few years)

Students in my computer graphics class completed a project in the spring of 1993 a work that involved an interdisciplinary group of students from physics; Geography; Home Economics; Business; Art and Music Departments. The final animation titled "Still Waiting" won a National Competition of Posters and Animation competition organized by the ACM-SIGGRAPH'93 Education Committee in Anaheim, California.

Teaching related activities include the development of a computer graphics curriculum and courses along with the designing and implementation of integrated computer graphics laboratories, that included a student lab, a faculty research lab and a video suite for mixing, recording and editing of digital works. These laboratories are equipped with the state of the art hardware and software capable of 2D and 3D modeling, desktop publishing animation and scientific visualization.

I have served in departmental as well as University wide committees, for an example:

- Elected Art Faculty Senate Rep. 1992 to present

- Chair: Faculty Senate Honors, Memorials and Awards Committee

- Chair: Computing and Telecommunications Advisory Committee for the Arts and Humanities, North Carolina Central University, Appointed by the Dean of the school of Arts and Sciences

- Chair: Faculty advisory Committee to University Computing and Telecommunication planning committee, appointed by the Chancellor of the University

- Member departmental search committee

- Art Club Advisor, Art Department

ii) Off-Campus Professional & Community Activities
1993-1994 Forest View Elementary School Advisory Board

1993 - Consultant Ethiopia Project, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.

1991 - Present : Member ACM-SIGGRAPH Association for Computing Machinery - Special Interest Group for Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques.

1991 - Chair: Computer Graphics at HBCU/MI's (Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Institutions of the ACM-SIGGRAPH Education Committee.

1990 - 1993: Board of Directors (ACASA) Arts Council of the African Studies Association.

1990 - to date: Consulting Editor and Board member AFRICAN ARTS Magazine a quarterly magazine dedicated to scholarly research and aesthetics in Traditional and Contemporary African Art and Culture. (UCLA) University of Los Angeles, California. As of 1995 - Contributing Editor of the Dialogue section of the African Arts magazine at UCLA.

iii) Juried and Invitational Solo and Group Exhibitions
- I have participated in juried and invitational solo and group exhibitions, local, regional, national and international.

iv) Recent Invitational Exhibition. The list includes those scheduled to take place:
1996 - Pan-Afrist Exhibition The Mitchell Museum : John R Eleanor R. Mitchell Foundation, Cedarhurst, Mt Vernon, IIlinois.

1996 - Malmo Konsthall, Malmo, Sweden, 27 January-17 March, 96.

1996 - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (SoHo), New York, Mid-June - September 96.

1995 - Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa : White Chapel Art Gallery, London England.

- In conjunction with these exhibitions I conducted a number of public lectures, in addition my works are published in numerous catalogs of exhibitions news papers and magazine reviews as well as books.

- I have participated in national and international professional conferences as presenter, panel chair as well as discussant. I have also published numerous articles and collaborated with others. To mention only a few:

1996 - Work Reviewed and to be Published in Black Culture and Art in the 20th Century, by Richard Powell (world of Art) Thames and Hudson Pub. London.

1995 - "Gebre Kristos Desta (1932-1981) : Ethiopian Painter and Poet Extraordinaire", Ethiopian Bir: Buisness & Industry Report, Vol. 1 N0. 1 pp.17-22, an Ethiopian-American Heritage Publication, Westfield New Jersey.

1995 - "Addis Connections: the Making of the Modern Ethiopian Art movement", by Achamyeleh Debela and Salah M. Hassan in Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa, pp. 126-139, 1995. Hard back published by Flamarion, in collaboration with White Chapel Art Gallery, London, England. 1995.

1995 - "The Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) School of Fine Arts 1957- to Present : Survival Against the Odds" paper presented at Africa'95, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

vi) Special Projects and Associated Grants:
- 1991-1992 NCCU Initiative to plan a National symposium on Interdisciplinary use of Computer Graphics at HBCU's. A $10,000.00. Grant from ACM-SIGGRAPH Education Committee.

- 1992-1993 A $10,000.00 continuation Grant from the ACM- SIGGRAPH Education Committee a renewal for planning a National symposium on Interdisciplinary use of Computer Graphics at HBCU's.

- 1992 - $6,000.00 Travel Grant from the North Carolina Board of Science and Technology, the North Carolina Central University to participate at the Third International Symposium on Electronic Art in Sydney, Australia Participation included a two week residency at the University of the South Wells, A group exhibition of 26 digital works iris prints and cibahrome prints format.

- 1993 - 94 : A US. Environmental Protection Agency NCCU Computer Graphics/Technology Lecture Series and Faculty Training Grant $35,000.00.

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