18 May 2020
Making masks in Temesgen studio
“The idea of abundance and scarcity takes a constant shift. What seemed to be scarce has forced itself to become an abundance”, writes Robel Temesgen on his Instagram post announcing his communal mask making adventures. In a conversation over the phone, Robel relates he finds the confinement to his home studio stifling with consequent strains on his creative practice. In addition to escapades to favourite coffee spots around the city, a regular habit prior to the pandemic, in the past 7 weeks since the Corona lock-down he has taken up several new pastimes, one of which is making beautiful face masks.
The collective mask making began organically. Tsedenya Abayneh, Robel’s close friend attempted to make a mask for herself and shared her process with Robel, who’s then reminded to call on Leayne Telahun, a friend with a sewing machine, to give their endeavour a fighting chance to succeed. Between the malfunctioning of said machine and the hunt for a new one, the task force grew to seven people in total. Kasahun Hailu, a regular at Robel’s studio, who also happens to be an industrial design graduate, took over the streamlining of the production and earned himself the name ‘Supé’ short for a supervisor. Shimeles Tadesse and Tesfaye Bekele, along with Robel, fill in the necessary gaps in the production line, while Naod Lemma, documents the process through pictures. Now, the collective makes an average of 60 masks in one afternoon and staggers their distribution rippling from their closest relations to members of their communities in need of a shield.
Many pharmacies around town hiked the price for a single-use face mask by upwards of 200% on the day the first case of Corona was confirmed in Addis. What used to be available at 25 ETB (75 cents) suddenly started to be sold for 150 ETB (4,50 USD), way beyond what a majority of Addis Ababans can afford. When the fear of contracting the virus increased with the rising number of cases, unable to afford to buy masks, many invented make-shift solutions, covering their faces with the shawls they’re wearing or repurposing discarded Ethiopian airlines sleeping eye shields to cover their mouths.
On the 16th of March, quickly after the breakout of Corona in Africa, Jack Ma, Chinese Billionaire, and founder of e-commerce multinational Alibaba announced his donation of 100,000 face masks and other PPE to each one of the 54 countries in the continent.  This donation was followed by a second batch containing 200,000 face masks and other PPE to be distributed among 54 countries , and the third batch including 4.6 million masks and other PPE donated immediately to African Union, and Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) . The Ethiopian government has also received facemasks form UAE, Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture, Korean Business Association and other local and international organizations . Although it is generally assumed these donated masks go to, or are reserved for health workers in the country, there’s no system in place to track whether the distribution is indeed being made towards the right recipients. According to a doctor working at St. Paul Hospital in Addis Ababa, a hospital anticipated to become a treatment centre for confirmed cases when the current centre, Eko Kotebe Hospital, reaches its capacity, thus far she has to buy her own PPE from private pharmacies.
Although, at the beginning of the pandemic many were lax about wearing a mask, in recent times members of the community have started to hold each other accountable. Now a person not wearing a mask is not allowed entry to the blue and white minibus taxis, the most common mode of private transportation in Addis. When entering public service areas like banks, security guards ask people without a mask to put one on. Ride, one of the most popular taxi-hailing platforms has distributed face masks and hand sanitizers to the majority of their drivers.
Other mask making endeavours in Addis that stem from organizing like-minded individuals include a collaboration between Doctors in Action (DIA), an enterprise empowering doctors for social change, and Sabegn, a concept store for lifestyle products. They started Debo project that works to spread awareness about Corona, recognize and support the work of front-line health workers and spread videos on how to make DIY masks and distribute the masks they’ve produced. Many good-hearted business-inspired communities have also mobilized to make face masks available for sale on the streets of Addis, standing close by taxi lines and other relatively crowded spaces for a price of 10 ETB (30 cents). The price for surgical masks sold at pharmacies has also plummeted to 30 ETB (90 cents) from its sudden climb 7 weeks ago. With continued improvement in access to masks, many still walk the streets of Addis without a shield on their faces.
Robel admits buying a 10 ETB mask from the streets is an easier way of providing protection for himself and many around him. It is not just the lack of masks on the streets that motivated the collective to gather at his studio. He speaks about the boredom that brought this group of people together, an interest in shared conversations that made them stay, the satisfaction in simple acts of generosity that entices them to come back. This impromptu artist’ collective is beyond a manufacturing line, they’re a conduit transforming what is scarce towards a perception of abundance.
For many Ethiopians, the stay at home period for this pandemic is frequented with power cuts and water shortages. The severity of this problem varies in different parts of town. While the cuts are intermittent in some areas varying between one to two days per week, other areas have no power for days on end. The longer power cuts are caused by the malfunctioning problem rather than rationing tact. Although this may appear unbearable for an outsider, for a majority of Addis dwellers it is, unfortunately, business as usual. The understanding of abundance and scarcity is versatile in Addis society, its flow is seamless and uninterrupted. When there’s no electricity at Robel’s studio, for example, to power the sewing machine used to make masks, the group simply shifts towards activities done only by hand or simply playing cards, relishing in the sudden abundance of time to be filled with enjoying each other’s company.
In these times, the productivity aspect of time is scarce, says Robel, while the idle and reflective space remain abundant. “Is it worth it to be an artist?” – he asks. “I am in my studio – suddenly forced to gauge my capacity: what is my actual reach, how vastly does my network extend, and how wide are the margins circumscribing the works I produce?” Although an avid consumer of art through virtual media, Robel expresses his hesitancy towards creating work for an online audience, he says he’s not interested in that capital right now. This sentiment refreshingly centres Ethiopian audiences as spectators of contemporary art that are coming from the country. Considering the very limited access to the internet, a work of art with output on a digital platform has little to no local reach.
The resistance from Addis Ababans towards staying at home is not primarily a question of the economy, Robel says. Although the economy is a crucial factor, people defy stay at home sanctions from the government, unable to placate their needs to socialize. Long before the pandemic, Robel has been investigating the nature of communities around coffee drinking culture in Ethiopia, describing the resulting spaces as heavens for uncensored dialogue and fertile soil for growing deep-rooted connections. In a conversation with the Corpus Podcast about his exhibition RE:PUBLIC held at Circle Art Gallery , Robel describes ‘jebena’ as a symbol of society. For his series, Floating Jebenas he has been looking at the disruption of social structures formed around coffee drinking culture due to rapid urbanization of the city. He notes the shift from neighbourly socials that were dismantled by aggressive construction to the emergence of informal small businesses that serve coffee at the many curves and crevices of the city. He iterates the way Ethiopians function as social fabric, and points at the various means we evade threats to our coffee gatherings.
Robel’s creative practice continually probes at the nature of communities, the strands that form them, the bedrocks they stand on. His meditation with ‘jebena’ as a holding space for Ethiopian culture and identity has resonance in the space his studio has recently become, a host for labour of passion in the form of mask making. Within the folding, stitching, and pressing of fabric, there’s a strain of alchemy at play, morphing superfluous substances into one of the most valuable items of the times.