Ethiopia’s Art at the Crossroads of Traditions

BALTIMORE, Maryland — Dark-eyed saints and apostles parade across a long stitched goatskin in robes of red, yellow, green, and blue. These holy figures are paired in conversation across accordion folds that raise the parchment into three dimensions, hinting that their dialogue transcends the page. This 15th-century painted manuscript, when not stored between wooden boards, was unfolded into a circular fan that led generations of worshippers in liturgical procession. The nearby sounds of a local Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of the Feast of St. Arsema and murmur of enraptured visitors testify to the living communities that Ethiopia’s ancient treasures continue to convene. 

This painted fan, the only one of its kind in the United States, summarizes the themes of Ethiopia at the Crossroads at the Walters Art Museum. Compiling over 220 artifacts spanning almost two millennia, the show unfurls continuities between past and present across East Africa’s rich artistic traditions.

The green, yellow, and red of Ethiopia’s early manuscripts, also the colors of the modern flag, separate the show into contextualizing, culturally connective, and contemporary sections. Given the sparse introductory signage, transhistorical organization, and general paucity of public education about this diverse region’s complex history, some visitors may initially struggle to orient themselves. But short video testimonies from members of the Ethiopian/Eritrean community in the DMV area — the world’s largest outside of Ethiopia — convey the multiplicity of stories contained in the exhibition’s artworks and artifacts. 

DC-based artist Tsedaye Makonnen guest curates contemporary art that punctuates the exhibition with modern perspectives, such as Faith Ringgold’s mixed-media sculpture “Lucy: The 3.5 Million Year Old Lady” (1977). The work assembles mementos of the artist’s mother, a fashion designer, into a coffin cradling a black effigy on a fabric platform fringed with the green, red, and black of the Pan-African flag. Behind the miniature casket, like an altarpiece, is a cloth cutout of Africa inscribed with news of the 1974 discovery of female Australopithecus afarensis remains at Hadar in Ethiopia that prompted Ringgold’s own journey to the continent, as well as her return to the fabric arts practiced by her enslaved maternal ancestors. Ringgold’s introductory piece frames the whole exhibition within a narrative of shared homecoming to universal origins.

The show’s richest sections explore Ethiopia’s historical pluralism and engagements with other cultures within and beyond Africa. Coins of the Aksumite empire (3rd to 7th centuries CE), showcased against a photo-backdrop of Axum’s monumental stelae, proclaim ecumenical ambitions to rival the Roman empire. A gamut of religious texts, paintings, and accouterments illustrate East Africa’s role as an early incubator of Abrahamic religions and a continuing crossroads for exchange. Orthodox Christian icons and Gospels, including the oldest Ethiopian manuscript in a North American collection (early 14th century, Təgray), highlight illuminators’ international engagements with Coptic, Byzantine, and Armenian iconography. A display of Renaissance-era panel paintings of the Virgin and Child and Saint George makes a convincing case for mutually transformative conversations between Ethiopia and Europe.

Ethiopia’s Muslim and Jewish communities are also well represented. Juxtaposed with premodern artifacts from both traditions are testaments to their continuity, including a 19th-century wooden board used to practice writing the Qur’an and a pillow sham by Yederesal Abuhay (c. 1990–2012), who embroiders rabbis, students, and synagogue in bright acrylic thread to support the threatened Betä Ǝsraʾel Jewish community.

Throughout, Ethiopia at the Crossroads immerses both objects and observers within experiential contexts. Photographs of modern-day religious processions and living rooms bedecked with hand-woven baskets drive home the point that many items — from leather Bible pouches to healing scrolls matching female commissioners’ heights — were intended for everyday use, not museum display. “Scratch-’n’-sniff” cards developed with the Institute for Digital Archaeology to render scents of frankincense, berbere, and parchment, like hands-on guides to the Gəʿəz alphabet, add sensory reminders that these objects made meaning within living communities.

Gallery officer Robert Cloud regularly stations himself in the final room to enjoy reactions to Emperor Haile Selassie’s velvet cloak and Theo Eshetu’s kaleidoscopic video installation “Brave New World II.” “People think the Walters looks small from the outside,” Cloud told us, “but once you’re inside, it’s immense.” The same holds true for Ethiopia at the Crossroads, which unites diverse art, objects, and audiences rarely engaged in dialogue and — as embodied by Tsedaye Makonnen’s “Senait & Nahom” light installation on the third floor — crystallizes themes of Black diaspora and erasure, healing and hope.

Ethiopia at the Crossroads continues at the Walters Art Museum (600 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Maryland) through March 3. The exhibition was curated by Christine Sciacca with the input of academic and community advisory panels.

The exhibition will travel to the Peabody Essex Museum (April 13-July 7) and the Toledo Museum of Art (August 17-November 10).

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