The Zoma museum in Addis Ababa is an alternative design model and critical space. Writer Jareh Das takes a look at it.

Aerial view of Zoma Museum compound, (Photo by Benedetta Castrioto)

Contemporary African architecture, in all its variations, manifests as rural developments, residential communities, modernist (and more contemporary) civic buildings, improvisational structures and so on. All these – according to British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, in his photographic book, Adjaye Africa Architecture – should be considered in line with “the six extraordinary geographic zones, each one very precise and extreme.” 

By this, Adjaye is talking about the Maghreb of the northwest, the desert over to the east, and the Sahel to the south, which lies between the desert and the forest. “Other parts of the continent are forestlands or savanna or the mountains,” he says, adding that “each place, of course, has its own particularities, but culture grows from climate,” before he poses a question; “How do you respond to this extreme climate and make an architecture that becomes African?”

Zoma Contemporary Art Centre, one of the first constructions by Meskerem and Elias, smaller centre built before Zoma Museum (Credit Michel Temteme)

Addis Ababa’s Zoma Museum is an apt example of Adjaye’s observation of African architecture that is as context specific as it is an environmentally conscious Ethiopian institution. The first contemporary museum in the city, Zoma, which opened its doors almost a year-and-a-half ago, is named in honour of Ethiopian artist, Zoma Shifferraw who died of cancer in 1979.  The venue’s sustainable design was conceived in a collaboration between founder and curator, Meskerem Assegued and visual artist, Elias Sime, both of them having a mission to bridge the gap between art and architecture in a space that fosters experimentation through cutting-edge ecological art and architecture. The striking building consists of a large central gallery with a façade of line motifs flanked by smaller buildings, which include a children’s centre, an elementary school, an art and vernacular school, amphitheatre and museum shop – all made from a historic and indigenous construction technique still used widely in vernacular Ethiopian architecture found in rural areas called Chika – or wattle and daub as it’s known in more rural areas.  ‘Zoma museum is effectively a land regeneration project,’ explains project manager, Benedetta Castrioto. ‘It was built in place of an informal landfill. Now we have a large botanical garden cultivated organically with different permaculture techniques.’

These techniques include sustainable vernacular architecture of wet soil and cob and dry-stone walls forming the textural building methods, with daily maintenance and operations for the neighbouring community.

‘All this happens in the context of a city that is growing very fast and where urbanisation is at times a violent process that marginalises the poor,’ she says. ‘High rise concrete buildings are the norm and represent a paradigm of modernization. Zoma Museum represents an alternative to this model. In this sense, it represents a critical space that aims to convey values of sustainability through beauty and contemporary art. We see ourselves as promoters of an environmental discourse.’

A welcome oasis in Ethiopia’s capital city, Zoma is surrounded by lush green vegetation. The grounds also incorporate a variety of environmentally sustainable features including rainwater collected for reuse, sunlight treatment of polluted streams flowing within the museum grounds as well as a biogas system, made from the manure of onsite animals, that powers the museum via the use of an underground chamber that sends gases to a generator. Echoing Benedetta’s thoughts on the museum’s vision and discourse, Zoma’s programming centres on local and global issues such as nutrition and climate change, which sit alongside herbal and botanical workshops. Within this there is a desire to collaborate with a broad spectrum of artists both in and beyond the local.

Benedetta: ‘We aim to reach international artists as widely as possible, although our criteria is certainly artistic excellence over geographical origin. Given the difficulties of this year, unfortunately this is still mostly an intention rather than what we have been able to do in terms of programming.’

Obviously, the pandemic has shut down the plans for the museum’s first anniversary, for the time being at least. Celebrations should take place once the situation allows. 

‘Thanks to our large garden, we have been able to operate – although at reduced capacity,’ explains Benedetta. ‘We are not allowed to hold events under the state of emergency Ethiopia issued for Covid.  This has mostly affected our revenues, which have dropped significantly, and in turn this will affect our budget for next year as well. As a new institution, we are working hard on our financial sustainability.’

The vibrant background of contemporary art that exists in Ethiopia means that the longer picture for Zoma’s survival will take in the fact that music, dance and visual arts that make up the scene will have a dynamic venue to be showcased.  

‘If nothing else, the lockdown has been an opportunity to work on fine tuning the space and strategizing,’ says Benedetta. ‘It has given us time to reflect and plan; something we had very little opportunity to do before.’

Zoma Museum Opening (Photo by Michel Temteme)