Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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The Art of Abyssinia Explored

Scholars examine the foreign and indigenous influences in Ethiopian artistic history.
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A pervasive idea within African history has been that of the ‘Hamitic Myth’ – a notion dictating that anything resembling ‘civilisation’ within Africa must have come from outside. In the 19th century European explorers were obsessed with the idea that the continent was not capable of creating anything of cultured splendour, to the point where wild hypotheses were put forward to explain the origins of various ancient ruins. When white settlers stumbled across the series of monuments south of the Nile Valley that became known as ‘Great Zimbabwe,’ theories as to who had constructed them ranged from one of the lost tribes of Israel, Greek mariners from the classical period, or especially bizarrely, an unspecified lost white tribe that had since descended into savagery.

It was a pernicious view, mainly because it promoted Africa as a static and unchanging place, devoid of any kind of history until the onset of European imperialism. The result has been that the study of pre-colonial African history, and art history in particular, has only gained close attention from scholars in recent years. Despite Ethiopia’s avoidance of long-term colonisation, leaders such as Menelik II and Haile Selassie believed they were descended from white Caucasian invaders who entered the country from North Africa centuries previously. It was deeply ironic, mainly because one area that is particularly and tragically overlooked is Ethiopian art.

A recent talk at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) illustrated this well. Foreign influences are undeniably a recurring theme within Ethiopian artworks, particularly between the 12th and 14th centuries when foreign artists were unable to leave the country once they had entered. Whether Syrian, Egyptian or Armenian, many who were forced to see Ethiopia as their new home brought their artistic leanings to bear on the works they produced for the church and the state.

Ethiopian painters and sculptors demonstrated a considerable ability to merge outside influences with their own traditions, particularly those rooted in religion. The country’s artworks are steeped in the language and idioms of the Bible, indicative of how much the Ethiopian Orthodox Church permeated many aspects of life, from the time of the Axumite Empire until today.

SOAS PhD student Jacopo Gnisci, whose thesis is centred on depictions of the Passion of Christ in Ethiopian iconography, attests to the range of influences embodied within the country’s creative landscape: “14th to 17th century Ethiopian art is unique in that it incorporated a variety of influences in its language. Works came from as far as the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Basin, yet many artists remained faithful to their African roots.” Examples include Coptic crosses made in the northern town of Lalibela bearing Greek inscriptions and 14th century manuscripts edged with Byzantine gold, despite gold plating not being a widely used technique in Ethiopian industries. Likewise, images from the 14th and 15th centuries of Adam and Eve, the Madonna and Child and the Crucifixion of Christ show prominent Venetian and Jewish influences.

However, Ethiopian artists had notably little interest in aesthetics. Art was created with a specific purpose, designed to bring the observer into greater contact with the metaphysical. Given the centrality of Christianity to life in Ethiopia, appreciating Ethiopian art appears essential in understanding the very soul of the country itself, providing an insight into the history, culture and beliefs of many of its peoples.

Scholarship in the field, along with Ethiopian studies at large, still suffers from a lack of funds and research in universities both within and outside Africa. But Jacopo hopes this will change: “Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world – yet the people take great pride in their traditions and history. It’s therefore essential to raise awareness of these sites in the hope it will promote their preservation.”

The event was a fascinating insight into a rich tradition at the heart of Ethiopia’s past, where foreign influences were far from dominant. Indeed, they were only one factor in a much larger artistic and spiritual legacy that was, and is, unashamedly African. With works shown that were beautiful, intricate and profound, one left with the wish that believers of the Hamitic Myth had only started there.

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Comments

There's a major contradiction in this essay (unless I'm reading it wrong, in which case, I apologise unreservedly in advance). You spend most of the article talking about outside influences on Ethiopian art, and then conclude it by describing the art and culture as 'unashamedly African' (a phrase which you then fail to define - first rule in writing is to define your terms). Indeed, the subject matter is fascinating, but your argument is confused.

Since when and according to whose rule book is defining terms a "first rule" in writing?
And could not the Ethiopian variant of artistic snycretism be 'African' in itself? Indeed, this seems to be a point Jacopo Gnisci makes: “14th to 17th century Ethiopian art is unique in that it incorporated a variety of influences in its language. Works came from as far as the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Basin, yet many artists remained faithful to their African roots.”

A slightly aggressive response to my rather tame comment, I think. Constructive criticism is not meant to cause offence, particularly in this case.

"Since when and according to whose rule book is defining terms a "first rule" in writing?" < Do you really mean to ask this question, or are you just doing it for the sake of arguing? I find it hard to believe that it's not the latter. How can you expect people to follow your argument, let alone be convinced by it, if you don't clearly define your terms? This most certainly is a - if not the - foundational rule to writing, particularly historical wrting, and if you are not aware of this, then I'm fairly concerned.

As for your second point (And could not the Ethiopian variant of artistic snycretism be 'African' in itself?): you have placed African in inverted commas in order to avoid providing a definition, and also contradicted your point. There is an obvious difference between what Jacopo is saying and what you have stated: he is saying Ethiopian art was unique because it incorporated foreign influences yet maintained indigenous roots; you, on the other hand, are saying that this amalgamation in Ethiopian art was somehow "African". Jacopo's "unique" vs your "African". Jacopo's specific vs your general. A fairly massive difference - almost opposite meanings.

This is an extremely informative and fascinating article. Well done and keep up the good werk!

no it isn't. i read it after clicking on the link to your comment, expecting something profound, innovative, thought-provoking. sadly, it's void of any independent thought and substance. it's also too wordy. and yes, she does contradict herself to a ridiculous degree. look at the 2nd sentence of 3rd paragraph. ok, now look at the first sentence of final paragraph. i wouldn't normally comment, but am clueless as to what inspired your praise.

I find your need to snipe away at this article very sad. It is obviously well-written and well-researched, on a topic I find interesting. I can only apologise if different people in the world, at some (horrific) stage, might have different tastes to you. You are truly hard done by.