An Open Letter to Michael Adonai

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Having political differences is one thing but to go out of one’s way to invent a story as to gain the sympathy of a few is truly disgraceful
Having political differences is one thing but to go out of one’s way to invent a story as to gain the sympathy of a few is truly disgraceful

By Denden Hayelom,

IT is with great dismay that I read your interview on and it is with a very heavy heart that I write this open letter to you. How your conscience allows you to distort facts is beyond me. It is, however, a sad reflection of the length to which some are willing to go to mask their sense of guilt and justify their leaving behind a legacy that they themselves could never measure up to. 

At the outset, I would like to make it clear that this open letter does not intend to chip at or take away from your creative abilities. You are a gifted Eritrean artist and nothing I say here attempts to deny that.

I do, however, have to remind you that your gift was nurtured and encouraged inside Eritrea, amongst your people and comrades. It is for that reason that I find it necessary to set the record straight lest you forget the real source of your talents.

Having political differences is one thing but to go out of one’s way to invent a story as to gain the sympathy of a few is truly disgraceful – especially when done by someone as endowed as you are.

Therefore, what follows is a short summary of the facts that surrounded your involvement with the State House.

In 1997 you were commissioned by the Office of the President to create paintings for the State House. In preparation for this task, you and your elder brother, Berhane, were sent to Europe for a few months to tour several countries to provide you inspiration and ideas for this work. The expenses for this trip – including room, board, travel, per diem, etc – were fully financed by the Government of Eritrea. Upon your return, all necessary material, including paint, canvases, brushes, and whatever else you needed, was provided to you – again fully paid for by the Government of Eritrea.

After consultations with different people you began your work and were expected to complete it in good time – and in good faith. In the midst of this task, you – without any permission or regard for the Office that provided you its full support and blessings – sold a painting, the Rahba, at the cost of over 400,000 Nakfa (equivalent to $60,000 calculated at the exchange rate of the time) to the Asmara Palace Hotel. This, until today, remains the highest ever amount paid for an Eritrean painting.

You cannot now claim that this painting was done privately and/or separately because the idea itself for such a painting was discussed with several members involved in the selection process at that time. The painting still hangs in the lobby of the Asmara Palace Hotel. No action was taken against you at the time although in my personal opinion this constituted a very serious legal breach and betrayal of trust.

Nonetheless, upon completion of your paintings, you were requested to present your work for selection. To the utter shock of those present at the time, you demanded an exorbitant amount of money – amounting to millions of Nakfa – for your creations.

Seeing this act as completely unreasonable – and very un-Eritrean – the Government of Eritrea decided to relieve you of this task and asked that you:

(1) take all your paintings with you and

(2) reimburse all the expenses paid to you in advance – including travel/tour expenses as well as painting material expenses.

Your claiming now that your paintings were confiscated and/or used without your permission, that you were not paid for your work, and that you were unreasonably asked to pay back money advanced to you is a complete distortion of facts.

Dear friend, you may choose to take things out of context and perhaps fool some people with a sob story of copyright and your imagined mistreatment of artists in Eritrea but we all know the truth. The fact remains that your greed did not allow you to appreciate one major point: the honor and privilege that any other humble artist would have felt to be commissioned to take on such an important task.

There are many other points that you raised in the interview that I found quite scandalous and shameless and do not merit a response. Having said that, it is my sincere hope that your conscience allows you to give credit where credit is due and to show some humility when necessary.