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.