Flemish art meets African science to improve chicken farming


The artist-cum-scientist Koen Vanmechelen is putting his famous Cosmopolitan Chicken Project to work in Ethiopia, where a new project is set to improve both access to food and wages for East African farmers

Incubated Worlds

Flemish artist Koen Vanmechelen has partnered with several organisations in Ethiopia on Incubated Worlds, a project to improve poultry farming in east Africa. The project aims to effect both nutrition and wages by introducing disease- and climate-resistant breeds of poultry.

Vanmechelen’s world-famous Cosmopolitan Chicken Project has been used in both artistic and scientific collaborations for many years. The ongoing project entails the continual cross-breeding of chickens from a variety of countries.

The project started nearly 20 years ago as a statement on the benefits of diversity to fertility and immune systems. Some 20 generations of chickens now combine traits from breeds from around the world, including Europe and the Americas, in addition to indigenous chickens from China, Egypt, Senegal, Indonesia and Cuba.

Treasure trove of genetics

Vanmechelen’s artistic cross-breeding project has culminated in an exceptional bird he calls the Cosmopolitan Chicken, which livestock experts say is also a potential treasure trove of valuable genetic traits. 

Incubated Worlds is an advanced poultry research and breeding facility in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. It emerged from the African Chicken Genetic Gains project, which is tapping the rich genetic diversity found in poultry to provide more opportunities for rural poultry producers, the majority of whom are women.

“We wanted to combine Ethiopia’s new poultry research facility with Vanmechelen’s fascinating art installation because he conveys the importance of the genetic diversity in livestock in ways that science alone simply cannot,” says Jimmy Smith, the director-general of the International Livestock Research Institute, one of the partners involved in Incubated World. “We aim to develop productive, resilient poultry for a part of the world where demand for livestock products is rising rapidly, and climate change is undermining agricultural productivity.”

This very global farm animal – found in almost every country in the world – is the product of many, many local communities

- Koen Vanmechelen

The art installation component of Incubated Worlds includes photographs, videos and books that provide insights into the complex genetics of both Vanmechelen’s many generations of poultry and an indigenous Ethiopian chicken. The genomes of both birds have been sequenced by scientists to study their wide variety of genetic traits.

The scientists and artist say they want to give the public a greater appreciation of the importance of genetic diversity to the economy and well-being of the country. “

“This is the most intriguing poultry facility in the world,” Vanmechelen said at the recent opening of Incubated Worlds. “I see it as a place where people can immediately understand that this very global farm animal – one found in almost every country in the world and acceptable as food in every religion – is the product of many, many local communities. And if we don’t maintain and value this cosmopolitan heritage, then we could lose it.”

Photo: Part of Koen Vanmechelen’s installation at Incubated Worlds in Addis Ababa