Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A conversation with Dr. Edward Denison

Issayas : Would you briefly tell us about yourself?

Edward Denison:I am a Lecturer at The Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL) and an independent consultant, writer and photographer specializing in global histories of architecture and the built environment, particularly experiences of modernity outside ‘the west’. I first traveled to Asmara in 1997 and have been involved in researching its built heritage since 2001 with the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project (CARP), directed by the brilliant Dr. Naigzy Gebremedhin. Since 2013, I have had the honour of working with the extraordinary team at the Asmara Heritage Project (AHP), led by Medhanie Teklemariam.

Issayas: You were one of the presenters of the recently concluded International Conference on Eritrean Studies. What did you present?

Denison: My paper was about the current UNESCO World Heritage application for Asmara, but it situated this subject within the wider context of modernist history as a means of challenging prevailing Euro-centric attitudes and approaches. In short, this aims to see Asmara not as a colonial city designed by Italians, but as a heritage asset of global significance liberated and conserved by Eritreans. The title was ‘Asmara: Decentering Modernist History’.

Issayas: You conducted a personal tour of Asmara's historical perimeter for the conference participants who had signed. What was the purpose? How was it received by the particpants?

Denison: Actually the tour was largely conducted by my brilliant colleagues from the AHP, in particular Dawit and Kibreab. The purpose of the tour was to give conference participants the opportunity to explore and experience Asmara while being given an expert account of the city’s history, buildings and public spaces. The feedback I got from the participants was very positive, especially in relation to the depth of knowledge conveyed by the AHP staff.

Issayas: Eritrea wants Asmara to be included in UNESCO's World Heritage List. What is the significance of being added, and what would be the benefits of being nominated?

Denison: UNESCO’s World Heritage List is the preeminent global register of cultural sites possessing ‘outstanding value to humanity’. There are many benefits from being on this list.

From Eritrea’s perspective, this application has added significance because it would be the country’s first World Heritage Site. This lengthy and complicated process demands the implementation of legal and procedural measures to ensure the safeguarding of cultural and natural heritage assets at a national level. The approval this year of the country’s first heritage laws is therefore an important and positive consequence of this process. It also helps to establish the institutional frameworks for heritage protection nationally and the development of human resources with experience in this important field.

From Asmara’s perspective, the benefits are fundamental, with the aim being to permit the long-term sustainable development of the city. This requires the complete overhauling and updating of the building regulations (which were previously the 1938 regulations) and various planning guidelines. This involves, among many other things, creating a Conservation Master Plan and Integrated Management Plan, as well as undertaking extremely rigorous and extensive studies of the city’s existing buildings, streets, public spaces, utilities, etc. The database that the AHP has created containing all survey data and archival records (c.80,000 scanned documents from the Municipal archives!) is an extraordinary testament to the AHP’s professionalism and Eritrea’s love of Asmara.
Only when a truly comprehensive picture of the city has been established can municipal authorities confidently permit new developments that enhance its physical, social and cultural character without the risk of threatening them.

Finally, being recognized positively on the world stage should be the cause of great pride. If Asmara is successfully inscribed on the World Heritage List it will do a great deal to promote a positive image of Eritrea to the global community, which in turn can lead to all sorts of long-term positive outcomes,
opportunities and friendships.

Issayas: Were there any other cities that had similar claims and benefited? I don't know if it is true, but I've heard Tel Aviv was one of them.

Denison: Yes, there are over 1,000 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, though this includes natural sites. There are comparatively few urban sites and even fewer modernist (twentieth century) urban sites. Tel Aviv is indeed one such site and its global image has undoubtedly benefited enormously from being one of the first modernist cities inscribed on the list in 2003.

An added significance for Asmara is its location in Africa, which is grossly under-represented on the World Heritage List. Modernism in Africa has generally been overlooked and the subject demands much more research. Asmara is a genuine pioneer in this regard and this is what makes its case as a modernist site outside Europe and beyond the Euro-centric gaze so exciting and comparatively challenging for a heritage industry that is both institutionally conservative and culturally western-centric. Eritrea’s application for modernism in Africa is a provocative, progressive and thrilling prospect.

Issayas: I heard there were consultants who came to Asmara. Was the visit part of the nomination process? Anything else you want to tell us?

Denison: During the preparation of the Nomination Dossier, the AHP has worked with a number of esteemed local and international consultants. However, your question may be alluding to the Field Assessor sent to Asmara in the summer by ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites). ICOMOS conducts the scientific assessment of nominations on behalf of UNESCO and these are conducted on-site and off-site. The assessment was extremely rigorous, focusing on a range of issues including the delineation of the site boundaries and buffer zone. We will not know the outcome of this assessment until ICOMOS publish their report, but I can say with certainty and confidence that Eritreans and the city of Asmara did their country proud, as ever, by presenting a warm and welcoming face to their international guests. 

Issayas: I've seen many tourists taking pictures of the "Alfa Romeo" building. Today the building, like many other buildings in Asmara is in bad shape, but what is it about this particular building that fascinate tourists?

Denison: Few buildings in Asmara are in a critical condition, as the climate is blessedly kind on building materials (unlike Massawa!). However, many structures are in need of repair and regular maintenance. A few require more urgent and extensive restoration, which will require considerable resources. Alfa Romeo is one such structure, where the plaster work, roof, windows and services all require complete restoration. It is always funny to see which buildings capture the public’s imagination. Alfa Romeo is certainly a popular example, perhaps due to its corporate familiarity to foreigners, but you also can’t ignore the role of architecture. One can’t help but marvel at that magnificent and monumental chamfered doorway crowned by a pair of flag poles. Such confidence!

Issayas: At Merha's presentation (The History of 1921's Massawa Earthquake) you commented that people need to look into indigenous knowledge. As an example, you talked about how the "monkey head" building structure that was practiced in the highlands of Eritrea is built as an earthquake proofing measure. Would you please elaborate more on this subject?

Denison: This highlights the essential issue regarding the criteria under which Asmara has been nominated for World Heritage Listing. The use of local building materials and techniques incorporated into the modernist architecture provides evidence of the interchange of human values on developments in architecture in Eritrea as well as bearing unique testimony to Eritrea’s cultural traditions. This includes the extensive use of local basalt in the construction of buildings
(sometimes plastered sometime lefts exposed – the best example of which is the extraordinary Spinelli Store), but can be seen most idiosyncratically in Degghi Selam at the entrance to the compound of Enda Mariam Cathedral where the wooden posts protruding from the wall recall the traditional ‘monkey-head’ technique that was once popular in the highlands and now only survives in the Kidane Mehret Church in Senafe. Degghi Selam was designed by Odoardo Cavagnari, the city’s Head of the Civil Engineering Office, who also designed Teatro Asmara (1920) and the city’s first major urban plan (1913).

Issayas: What is the significance of RIBA's Presidential award on research and history?

Denison: On 6 December, it was announced at an awards ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) that the AHP’s work won the RIBA President’s Medal for Research – among the most prestigious accolades granted in recognition of architectural research globally. This is an exceptional honour and testimony to the world-class standard of research conducted by the AHP in the course of preparing this nomination. The judging panel wrote: ‘This is a prodigious piece of research and cataloguing that goes beyond focussing on the history and significance of the UNESCO definition of ‘outstanding universal value’. It is very nuanced and sensitive to the local context in its evaluation … If it is to judge the city and its buildings by World Heritage Site criteria it appears
to do it very well. Overall this is an exemplary and unique piece of work that has the potential to have a transformative effect on Asmara in the global, public imagination’.

Issayas: Would RIBA's award lead to UNESCO's recognition of Asmara as a World Heritage Site?

Denison: In short, no, but such high praise from such a globally respected and independent professional body strengthens Asmara’s case for World Heritage listing and will give confidence to those assessing the nomination that Asmara is indeed worthy of recognition.

Issayas: Edward, thank you so much for your time.

Denison: You're welcome.

Please find Dr. Edward Denison's Eritrea picture portfolio at the following site:

Monday, December 12, 2016

A conversation with Dr. Massimo Zaccaria on his latest research

Issayas: Would you tell us about your recent presentation at the International Conference on Eritrean Studies Conference in Asmara, Eritrea?

Massimo: I have presented a paper about the history of the canned food in Eritrea from the creation of the first canneries, in 1914, up to the 1960s.

My article explores the history of the canned food sector which, alongside the salt industry, can be considered one of the first industrial sector to take root in Eritrea. My aim is to highlight the social and cultural changes produced in the country by the arrival of the first industrial activities. The introduction of industrial production in a new environment required a series of modifications and adaptation at various levels:  modern and scientific techniques of livestock breeding were introduced, local breeds were improved, “rational” techniques were adopted but also factory workers were demanded to adopt new ways of conceptualizing labour and time, while a new work-ethic was introduced.

The study of the history of food industry in Eritrea offers also an invaluable perspective on how gender relations have changed over time.

The food industry has always accommodated large number of female workers: in Asmara, halfway through the 1960s, SOPRAL (food) and Barattolo (textiles) mainly employed female workers. At the height of its activity, Barattolo, a cotton factory, had a workforce of around 3 thousand workers, 70% of whom were women. Strong female contingents were employed in the industry for the processing of agricultural products, such as the Azienda Casciani – De Nadai di Elaberet and the AMAP match factory. The factory offered women workers a job that was often soul-destroying but that provided them with a salary and so the possibility to renegotiate her role in the family and in society.

INCODE Beef Goulash and Boiled Beef Label, 1959

Issayas: How was your presentation received?

Massimo: I think that the participants were a little bit puzzled by the apparent oddity of the topic. But once they realized that this is just another way to talk about Eritrean social fabric, I hope they enjoyed the presentation and the following discussion that was very inspiring.

Issayas: Were there any interesting discovery that you found while doing a research on the history of canned meat industry in Eritrea?

Massimo: The period 1914-1918 will mark the celebration of the First World War Centenary. It seems to me that most of the people is unaware of the impact the WWI had on Eritrea. My presentation has tried to highlight one of the most dramatic way in which WWI affected Eritrea. During the war demand for canned food raised and most of the European countries started looking for new sources of cheap meat to feed their soldiers.

In 1914 the Torrigiani canneries started operating in Eritrea, according to the contract that was signed with the Italian army, the canneries were supposed to provide 1 million tins per year. Italy’s entering the war in 1915 conferred a strategic value to the Eritrean production that rapidly gained fundamental importance for the destiny of the Italian army during the First World War. As a result of the urgent requests from Italy, the factory in Asmara had committed to supply 24 million cans up to 1921-22, 16 million of which were to be provided in the two years period from 1917-1918 alone. In the space of a few years, the Eritrean administration was requested  to provide more than seven times the original provision.
 Tins of meat for Muslim troops
Unable to find the cattle needed in Eritrea, the Italians administration turned first to Yemen and then to Ethiopia. The many difficulties encountered during the six years of activity did not prevent the Torrigiani to produce more than 12 million cans of meat, i.e. about 120 thousand tons of meat. Beside that, Eritrea supplied the Italian war effort hides for a value of 20 million Lire, 50 thousand tons of dum palm and 60,000 tons of potassium chloride (used in explosives). Eritrean troops were deployed in Libya, one of the many WWI’s fronts.

At the end of the war everyone acknowledged that the Torrigiani Company had “made remarkable efforts” in order to meet “the army’s meat requirements”. However, the cost of this success had been a general impoverishment of one of the most important Eritrean resources. The local livestock was almost depleted and it took several years in order to reach to pre-war levels.

For the canned and frozen meat industries, the early 1960s represented the golden era. Between 1962 and 1965, investments in the sector underwent an increase of 547.3% with 6 industries active in the sector: SOPRAL, INCODE, SARICE, AIMCO and EMCO. The canneries’ boom was based on Ethiopia providing the raw material (cows) and Eritrea the technical expertise (processing and canning). During the 1960s Eritrea was exporting canned food everywhere: Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Britain and Italy.

SOPRAL Share Company, Ethiopia Trade and Economic Review 1970-71, 
Addis Ababa, Chamber of Commerce, 1971, p. 117.

Issayas: What is the importance of knowing about the canned meat industry in Eritrea?

Massimo: This study is a further step in the direction of understanding the reactions of the Eritrean society  to the vast changes brought by colonialism. For good or ill, Italian colonialism had an impact on environment, social relationships, the economy and the cultural life of many Eritreans.

Issayas: What is your opinion about the organization/timing/importance of the conference?

Massimo: ICES has represented a turning point in Eritrean studies. There is the need to strengthen the relations between scholars working on Eritrea. Among the presenters there were many young and talented Eritrean scholars, I hope that in the future there will be spaces for working together .

Issayas: Any final comments? What is your next research project?

Massimo: I’m working on the history of Eritrea in the period 1896-1913. I will use the life and work of a professional photographer based in Eritrea in those years: Alessandro Comini. A few years ago I was able to locate part of his photographic archive. Working on some 300 original glass plates I will try to illustrate how Italian colonialism conceptualized Eritrea and how it made use of its natural and human resources. The pictures of Alessandro Combini are astonishingly beautiful and details many aspects of Eritrean life at the beginning of the 20th century but the real challenge remains how to contextualize that photographs.

Issayas: Thank you for your time. Always fascinating research!

Massimo: You're welcome.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Eritrea 2016: Sketches of a Trip. Part IV

In this post, let me introduce you to the works of Yonathan Tesfay. Yonathan learned iron works from his late grandfather and later added woodwork to his creativity. I first visited Yonathan at his work -shop and later at his showroom. What impressed me the most with Jonathan's woodwork is that  no trees are cut to produce his amazing work. The wonderful creative works that you see below are made from difference size pieces of  wood that he collects from various places.

Let's Buy Eritrean products!!!

Yonathan's workshop

Yonatha's showroom


From Jonathan's display book. Courtesy of Filmon Tesfay, Jonathan's brother 

Below, two treasured-gifts from Yonathan. Thanks. Yonathan would not accept payment.
This is the same experience that Dr. Theodore Papefuss of the University of California, Berkeley
mentioned on Eritrea Profile. Check his article at the end of this post.