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Confluence: Ethiopia at the Crossroads

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Among the first works in the Walters Art Museum’s recently opened Ethiopia at the Crossroads (through March 3) is a delightful 18th-century canvas mural that depicts, among other things, a rapt Virgin Mary. Wide-eyed, she gestures in demure astonishment as she receives a wafer from her precocious child. But her gaze also wanders towards a handsome vessel gently extended by a priest. Agog, Mary is vibrantly alert to the appeal of material objects—and to the broad implications that lie behind them.

In that sense, she offers a sort of model for those who visit this rich, ambitious exhibition, encouraging us to look for overarching meanings. For instance, the mural points to the centrality of religious art in Ethiopia—which, in addition to being one of the oldest Christian nations, can boast of significant Jewish and Islamic patrimonies. And its formal aspects (thick outlines; bold fields of color; restrained modeling) support, in their vaguely Byzantine aspect, the show’s central claim that Ethiopian art has always been profoundly influenced by regional traditions. Look closely enough, the Virgin’s eyes suggest, and you may begin to see in new ways.

And indeed, you might. While the Walters has been able to boast of one of the strongest collections of Ethiopian art in the world since the 1990s, the current exhibition offers a meaningful attempt to tell a complex and relational visual history in unprecedentedly detailed ways. To that end, curator Christine Sciacca worked with several American and Ethiopian institutions and community groups, and she commissioned Tsedaye Makonnen, a DC-based artist, to address a slate of works by artists in Ethiopia and members of the extensive Ethiopian diaspora. The result is a rewarding show of diverse objects that collectively attest to deep continuities and extensive cultural exchanges.

 

The Nativity, The Presentation of Christ in the temple, and the Adoration of the Magi, 18th century (glue tempera on canvas). Photo courtesy of The Walters Art Museum.
Folding processional icon in the shape of a fan, late 15th century (ink and paint on parchment, thread). Photo courtesy of The Walters Art Museum.
Curator Christine Sciacca, speaking to a group of museum-goers before a folding processional icon in the shape of a fan, late 15th century. Photo by Kerr Houston.

One of the first highlights in the show is a powerful 12-foot-long processional icon. Dating to the 1400s and one of only six surviving examples of its type, it consists of several sizable pieces of parchment, stitched together and painted in tempera. Displayed in a vitrine, it assumes the form of a rectangle, and pairs of patriarchs, prophets and saints face each other attentively, as if acknowledging a solemn, common truth. Originally, though, such objects were sometimes folded to create circular fans: massive wheels with an emphatic dimensionality and a dynamic aspect. At such moments, the staid congregation of venerable figures became an animated constellation, with the Virgin Mary at its pinnacle.

Nearby, a beguiling triptych painted by a monk active in the imperial court in the mid-1400s offers a useful distillation of a number of aesthetic strategies central to much Ethiopian art. Strong contours, an abiding sense of flatness, and stylized folds suggest an openness to abstraction. Vivid patterns, rippling lines, and jewel-like tones predominate. So, too, do frontal and iconic poses. For the most part, the narrative potential of figures in early examples like this seems less important than their role as witnesses who observe, testify, and exude a serenely supernatural presence. 

But that’s not to say that Ethiopian visual culture is generally disembodied, or that it consists mostly of paintings—or even that it is invariably religious. Happily, the show also includes a range of handsome cast and engraved metal processional crosses designed for liturgical performances; a video evokes the solemn choreographies in which they played an important role.

Equally fascinating is a group of four wooden headrests made in ancient Egypt and modern Ethiopia. Comprised of gentle curves and beautiful in their tapered elegance, these objects suggest a remarkable regional continuity, even as they also quietly conjure the individuals who used them to protect their elaborate hairstyles while sleeping.

 

Installation view of Ethiopia at the Crossroads (headrests). Photo by Kerr Houston.
Installation view of Ethiopia at the Crossroads. Photo by Kerr Houston.

It’s worth pausing, too, before a stunning display of gorgeous baskets. Made of woven and dyed plant fibers and on loan from the Peabody Essex Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, these baskets are studies in master craftsmanship and the confident use of patterning. Featuring conical tops and colored bands, their silhouettes hint at abstract forces of compression and release, and their surfaces are dotted with motifs that suggest, in their crisp placement, an almost telegraphic logic. A related video features a contemporary weaver who speaks about the process by which such baskets are manufactured—and about their considerable cultural significance.

Other highlights proliferate. In the decades around 1500, the monks in Ethiopia’s numerous monasteries developed a daring and eclectic style of manuscript illumination, often characterized by energetic border designs, brilliant reds and yellows, and willfully distorted figures. Thus, in a page from a gospel book painted in around 1504, the evangelist John almost threatens to dissolve into pure form: less scribe, you could say, than diagram. By 1700, however, the creation of a new capital and the importation of European engravings fostered a very different style, which now prized delicate modeling and duskier shading. Spirituality still mattered, in other words, but real external forces also shaped the art.

Indeed, the relationship between Ethiopia and the larger world is the core leitmotif of this show. After offering an introduction to the region and its traditions, the exhibition is built around a series of installations that illustrate the myriad artistic links between Ethiopia and its many regional neighbors. Close affinities with Yemeni silver, Coptic Egyptian manuscripts, and Byzantine coinage are explored.

A section on the ties between Ethiopia and distant Armenia is perhaps less expected, but every bit as convincing. And the impact of Jesuit missionaries, whose imported images led to changes in renderings of the Virgin Mary, is acknowledged—as is Ethiopia’s famous resistance to European colonialism. Despite an openness to foreign influence, Ethiopian artists thus managed to perpetuate a strong local idiom and identity.

Of course, there are challenges in trying to tell such a complicated story, and the thicket of competing narratives can verge on the overwhelming. Themed colored walls and variously scaled wall texts seek to impart a clear structure, but you won’t be alone if you are occasionally uncertain about the cultural connections being proposed. The density of the installation can also disorient: towards the end of the show, a single gallery features no fewer than forty objects, with one vitrine holding fifteen of those. It’s almost impossible, regardless of one’s focus and good will, to give so many objects truly close attention.

 

Tsedaye Makonnen, Senait & Nahom | ሰናይት :: እና :: ናሆም | The Peacemaker & The Comforter, 2019 (laser-cut acrylic, LED light bulbs, wire mesh). Photo by Kerr Houston.

Relatedly, the emphatically collaborative, polyphonic and multi-sensory emphasis of this show does result in some minor problems. In the abstract, scent cards imbued with the odors of frankincense and parchment may appeal as a means of transcending the passive and merely visual conventions of traditional museum displays and a way of evoking a lush sensorium.

On the show’s opening day, though, they had yet to arrive from the United Kingdom—and when they did find a place on the show’s walls, their effect was underwhelming: was that the scent of a manuscript, or just the odor of a piece of paper stock, scratched repeatedly? Similarly, while a modest installation that touches on issues of conservation is well intended, it is eclipsed by the larger logic of the exhibition.

And what of the modern and contemporary works, sprinkled throughout the show? Such juxtapositions are now a popular curatorial strategy, as they can hint at cultural continuities while also invoking the varied work of contemporary artists. Certainly, those continuities are real in the case of some Ethiopian diasporic art. A vigorous painting by Wosene Worke Kosrof, for instance, builds on an ancient conviction that texts and scripts are potent. A sharp but cryptic photograph by Aïda Muluneh and a ravishing installation by Makonnen establish, meanwhile, the considerable diversity of Ethiopian art in the present tense. But some of the other pieces founder, as they fail to assume a clear place in the complex curatorial logic.

 

Wosene Worke Kosrof, Wax and Gold X, 2014 (acrylic on canvas). Jolene Tritt and Paul Herzog Collection © Wosene Worke Kosrof.
Headdress 6, 2019, paper collage by Helina Metaferia, photo by Cara Ober
Curator Christine Sciacca with Headdress 6 and 23, mixed media works by Helina Metaferia, photo by Cara Ober

But no worries—for such momentary lapses are few, and they hardly dampen the many bright moments in this show. One gallery features a fascinating cluster of talismanic scrolls that were intended to be worn by the individuals for whom they were made. I was also riveted, on both of my visits, by the glorious materiality of a silk and velvet umbrella meant to be used in formal contexts. It’s easy to appreciate, too, the several massive photographic murals installed throughout the show, as they help to remind us that these objects took their place in specific liturgical, architectural, and domestic environments. The show may be visually and conceptually busy at points, but it does an admirable job of contextualizing Ethiopian art, in several senses.

Ultimately, then, there’s no doubting its central observation that Ethiopian art has long been characterized by a diversity of influential traditions and a series of cultural interactions. Of course, Ethiopia is far from unique in functioning as a crossroads; the same thing is true of, say, Sicily, or Palestine, or Cairo. And while this show’s claim that it is “the first exhibition to center the country’s significant history and artistic tradition in a global context” may be true, the cosmopolitanism of Ethiopian art is in fact a well-established trope. (As C. Griffith Mann observed in the 2001 book Art of Ethiopia, “the dynamic nature of the relationship between indigenous artistic traditions and foreign influences constitutes one of the most interesting features of Ethiopian art through the centuries.”)

Still, the sum total is a thoughtful and innovative display of a remarkable artistic milieu. The result of years of research, negotiation, and design, this is at once an impressive and delightful show. Walk through it slowly, and you may feel rather like Mary, in the canvas mural: fully engaged, and thrilled with what has been extended to us.

 

Header Image: Installation view of Ethiopia at the Crossroads. Photo by Kerr Houston.

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