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The Toledo Museum of Art Chronicles Centuries of Ethiopian Artistic Traditions in Summer 2024 Exhibition

'Ethiopia at the Crossroads' places Ethiopian art in a global context

September 26, 2023

Psalter with Praise of Mary (Wəddase Maryam) and the Canticles of the Prophets, about 1400-1500, ink and pigments on parchment with wooden boards, open: 8 7/8 × 6 11/16 × 3 15/16 in. Ethiopia, Africa. Mrs. George W. Stevens Fund.

Journey through more than 1,700 years of artistic traditions and celebrate rich history and culture with “Ethiopia at the Crossroads,” on view Aug. 17-Nov. 10, 2024 at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA). It is the first major United States exhibition to examine Ethiopian art in a global context and chronicle the country’s artistic traditions and exchanges from their origins to present day.  

Ethiopia sits in the Horn of Africa and throughout its history has been a crossroads. Its access to key waterways and strategic placement at the juncture of Africa, Asia and Europe fostered trade and significant cultural interchange. “Ethiopia at the Crossroads” situates artistic expression, practice and creation within the nation’s significant role in the growth and spread of Judaism, Christianity and Islam from the time of their inception. 

In the exhibition, more than 200 historic and contemporary works usher visitors through centuries of this cross-cultural connectivity and highlight the role Ethiopian artists played in the creation and exchange of artworks throughout Africa and across the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Historical works of Ethiopian art — including devotional painted icons, manuscripts, coins, textiles, metalwork and carved wood crosses of various scales — will appear alongside contemporary works by Aida Muluneh and Elias Sime to showcase the often-overlooked cultural significance of Ethiopia. 

“‘Ethiopia at the Crossroads’ showcases millennia of history and culture from one of the most important regions in world history,” said Adam Levine, the Toledo Museum of Art’s Edward Drummond and Florence Scott Libbey director and CEO. “Building on recent acquisitions of Ethiopian artwork from the Middle Ages to today, we know our audience will respond to this important show — the most significant in this country in nearly 50 years.” 

In the exhibition’s introduction, visitors are offered different lenses into Ethiopian history and culture. Faith Ringgold’s “Lucy: The 3.5 Million Year Old Lady” celebrates humanity’s bipedal evolution that has been traced to northeastern Ethiopia. In 1974, an anthropologist and his research assistant working at a paleontological site in Hadar, Ethiopia excavated several hundred bones that would make up 40 percent of the hominin skeleton. The early human ancestor, later nicknamed “Lucy,” was the most complete and important discovery in the field at the time. News of the discovery spread globally and inspired Ringgold to visit the African continent. In her mixed-media sculpture included in the exhibition, Ringgold pairs a model of “Lucy” with modern-day textiles she collected in Ethiopia. 

Ethiopia’s connection to the South Arabian Peninsula is evident in the written language. The exhibition displays this connection across the Red Sea through works that showcase Ge’ez, the classical Ethiopic written language based on South Arabian script. Visitors will find Ge’ez inscriptions in painted icons that appear alongside “Wax and Gold X,” a contemporary work by Wosene Worke Kosrof (Ethiopian, b. 1950). Kosrof, who draws inspiration from Ethiopian icons, found interest in Ge’ez alphabets and the Amharic language that descended from Ge’ez. Both serve as the foundation for his abstract composition on view in the exhibition. 

In addition to showcasing early ties with Judaism and Islam, “Ethiopia at the Crossroads” offers insight into the country’s early practice of Christianity through the display of painted icons, illuminated manuscripts and processional crosses. For centuries, Christians honored their faith through church wall painting and manuscript illumination. In the 15th century, Ethiopian artists embraced the tradition of icon painting popular in Byzantine art. Concurrently, Italian artists arrived to the Ethiopian court. The new painting styles they introduced would influence many Ethiopian artists, who in turn left their mark on the European artists. The exhibition pairs works by artists from both cultures for the first time to display their exchange of iconography, painting styles, color palettes and materials. “Our Lady Mary with Her Beloved Son and Archangels Michael and Gabriel” by Fre Seyon (active 1445-1480) features the Virgin and Christ in a traditional Italian pose flanked by Archangels Michael and Gabriel, who often appear together in Ethiopian painting. The figures also wear garments with patterns that are found in Ethiopia. Niccolò Brancaleon (Italian, active 1480-1521) worked in the Ethiopian imperial court during the same time as Fre Seyon and combines Italian artistic practices with Ethiopian techniques in “Right Half of a Diptych with the Virgin and Child” (ca. 1500). The Venetian monk pairs the four-color palette found in Ethiopian icon paintings with the shaded layers that are characteristic of Italian Renaissance works.  

The exhibition also includes a newly acquired Ethiopian icon from the Toledo Museum of Art’s collection that dates to about 1500 and features a vibrant painting of the Virgin Mary’s parents Saints Anne and Joachim on the outside and a posthumous royal portrait of Ethiopian King Lalibela and his wife Masqal and Kibra on the inside. Opposite their portrait is Saint Mercurius on horseback. Such icons were integral parts of the Christian liturgy in Ethiopia.  

An intricate copper “Processional Cross” illustrates parallels between Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia. Design elements on the cross were likely used to hold fabric that would drape the cross that Ethiopian priests carried on feast days, a practice that echoes the Islamic processional standard ‘Alam. “Ethiopia at the Crossroads” includes illuminated copies of the Qur’an as well as works that represent the faith’s rich basket-weaving tradition — honoring Harar, the walled city that became the center of Islam in medieval Ethiopia and is now Islam’s fourth holiest city. In the early 7th century CE, Muslims fled persecution in Mecca and settled in Aksum, Ethiopia’s capital where the Christian ruler gave them refuge. Today, Islam is the second largest religion in Ethiopia.  

“From antiquity to the present day, the idea of crossroads has been at the heart of Ethiopian art. Artists from the storied African nation developed their own artistic practices while also synthesizing styles and traditions from communities they encountered through travel, trade and diplomacy,” said Sophie H. Ong, Toledo Museum of Art’s Brian P. Kennedy Leadership fellow and a coordinating curator for the exhibition. “‘Ethiopia at the Crossroads’ provides the tremendous opportunity for Toledo’s audiences to engage deeply with the history of a country that channeled its identity and ideals into art. Visitors will encounter coinage and luxury manuscripts commissioned by self-fashioning rulers, expertly crafted objects used in personal and collective religious practice, as well as artworks by living Ethiopians that draw on the traditions of the past to engage issues of today.”  

“Ethiopia at the Crossroads” is co-organized by The Walters Art Museum (Baltimore, Maryland); the Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, Massachusetts); and the Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, Ohio). The exhibition is curated by Christine Sciacca, Ph.D., curator of European art, 300-1400 CE, The Walters Art Museum. Coordinating curators are Sophie Ong for the Toledo Museum of Art and Karen Kramer, Stuart W. and Elizabeth F. Pratt curator of Native American and Oceanic art and culture, Peabody Essex Museum. The works on view include Ethiopian art from the organizers’ world-renowned collections and loans from American, Ethiopian and European lenders. An illustrated catalogue published by The Walters Art Museum will accompany the exhibition.


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