Ethiopia is the African country with the most UNESCO World Heritage sites. It has a population of more than 80 million. It is the second oldest nation in the world to have embraced Christianity. It has its own calendar and its own time zone. There are 18 different languages spoken in the country, the most common of which, Amharic, is a language with a unique alphabet. And if all this was not enough, ancient Abyssinia was the only African nation that was not colonised by a foreign power.
Ethiopia is also the third biggest exporter of coffee in the world and is the place where it was first discovered 1,000 years ago. Eighty-five percent of the population of the country make a living from its production.
We find ourselves face to face with a unique country within a complex African jigsaw puzzle. It is a richly varied country, full of contrasts as much in its geography as in its cultures, its traditions and its personality.
The ethnic groups of the south of Ethiopia, which developed along the axis of the river Omo, are considered among the most ancient in the world, maintaining much of their original identity. Their ancestral ways of life and rituals are an echo of the most distant past of human history; the aesthetic tastes for the care and adornment of the body of each ethnic group are some of the most striking in the world. Each population has maintained its social cohesion through its own communal rites, which still persist today.
The north of the country is distinguished for being the cradle of Orthodox Christianity and for some extraordinary artistic/religious combinations. From the Coptic heritage and the Ottoman tradition, these complexes are situated in Bahardar, Gondar, Axum and Lalibela. In this last site can be found eleven churches carved out of solid rock.
The colourful basket weaving of Ethiopia has a long tradition and is common in rural parts of the country with the Muslim city of Harar being one of the most famous for this craft. The traditional baskets of Ethiopia are categorised as “coiled” baskets. The baskets play an important role in the culture and society of Ethiopia and are seen as functional, decorative and sacred elements throughout the country.
In this context, Salem Kasshun has positioned his shop to specialise in basketwork and having created his own group of workers has achieved a greater flexibility and capacity for experimentation. For PET Lamp the characteristics of production and work practices of Salem Kasshun ́s shop are the ideal conditions in which to conduct the project, at the same time offering the possibility of realising a personal challenge: to modernise and to make known internationally this traditional Ethiopian craft.
Generally made by women, the design comes from their own imagination. There are no guidelines or instructions to help in the design of these intricate and colourful pieces, the women simply decide on a decorative pattern and apply it from memory. The skills of basketmaking are passed down through the generations from mother to daughter.
The materials used are usually grasses and palm leaves which are dyed with other natural materials. They typically use the coiling technique which consists of sewing a stationary horizontal foundation with vertical stitches. Essentially these artisans bind a bundle of grass pieces into a long roll while wrapping a single piece of grass or fiber around the roll. Then, they coil the wrapped bunch in a circle and stitch together each ring of the circle to expand the basket. It is a slow process which requires patience and a great strength.
This activity fulfills a social purpose, since it strengthens the community linkages. We have mainly worked with mothers of twins, a very stigmatised category of women in Ethiopia. The workshop and the ongoing project suppose for them a kind of reinsertion and social recovery which allow these women practice their weaving skills and preserve them in order to transfer the traditional techniques to the next generations.
Addis Abeba, Ethiopia
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón
Enrique Romero de la Llana
Ethiopia local partner: