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The Toledo Museum of Art Transports Visitors to the Horn of Africa with Summer Exhibition

'Ethiopia at the Crossroads' traces 1,750 years of artistic traditions

March 19, 2024

Psalter with Praise of Mary (Wəddase Maryam) and the Canticles of the Prophets

About 1400-1500. Ethiopia, Africa. Ink and pigments on parchment with wooden boards. Mrs. George W. Stevens Fund. 2021.37.

Traverse 1,750 years of Ethiopia’s artistic traditions and experience the nation’s rich history, cultural heritage and global impact in “Ethiopia at the Crossroads,” on view Aug. 17-Nov. 10 at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA). The first United States exhibition of its kind in nearly five decades, the show features 220 works that situate Ethiopian art in a global context, emphasizing the nation’s influence that reached east via the Arabian Sea and extended north through the Red Sea, Nile River and Mediterranean Sea. As the bridge between Africa, Europe and Asia, Ethiopia’s mark is vast with a scope of artistic and religious influence that remains today. 

“‘Ethiopia at the Crossroads’ invites visitors to immerse themselves in the beauty and artistry that saturated Ethiopia for centuries and permeated other parts of the world,” said Adam Levine, TMA’s Edward Drummond and Florence Scott Libbey director and CEO. “The works on view introduce the often-overlooked cultural significance of Ethiopia and trace many current artistic and faith practices to the only African nation to never be colonized. TMA looks forward to presenting this exhibition that honors Ethiopia’s historical impact and vibrant present.” 

TMA pairs over a millennium of devotional painted icons, manuscripts, coins, textiles, metalwork and carved wood crosses with contemporary works that reflect the evolution of Ethiopian artistry. Among the works are TMA’s recent acquisitions of Ethiopian artwork from the Middle Ages to today, including an important Ethiopian icon that dates to about 1500. The icon’s exterior features a vibrant painting of Saints Anne and Joachim, the Virgin Mary’s parents. Inside, a posthumous royal portrait of Ethiopian King Lalibela and his wife Masqal Kibra appears opposite a depiction of Saint Mercurius on horseback. Such icons were integral parts of the Christian liturgy in Ethiopia.

Other religious works reveal the influences that flowed between Ethiopian artists and Italian artists who arrived to the Ethiopian court in the 15th century. The groups shared 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 paintings. 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 employs the four-color palette common in Ethiopian icon paintings with the shaded layers that are characteristic of Italian Renaissance works.

“‘Ethiopia at the Crossroads’ emphasizes the longevity of global exchange by demonstrating the sharing of ideas and artistic practices within Ethiopia and the communities with whom it interacted,” said Sophie Ong, coordinating curator and a TMA Brian P. Kennedy leadership fellow. “While three-quarters of the exhibition’s artworks come from Ethiopia, the remainder relate to the neighboring cultures to which it historically was connected, including the Roman Empire, Coptic Egypt and Byzantium, to name just a few. TMA will showcase for the first time two extraordinary recent acquisitions that complement and provide context for the Ethiopian artworks in the exhibition—a 4th-century BCE alabaster ‘Figure of a Man’ from South Arabia (modern day Yemen) and one of the most outstanding Armenian manuscripts known today, a 16th-century Gospel Book illuminated by Hakob Jughayets’i.”

Works that showcase Ge’ez emphasize Ethiopia’s connection to the South Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea. The classical Ethiopic written language based on South Arabian script, demonstrated by TMA’s South Arabian alabaster, appears in painted icons displayed alongside Wosene Worke Kosrof’s “Wax and Gold X.” The contemporary artist uses the Ge’ez alphabet and the Amharic language that descended from Ge’ez as the foundation for his abstract composition. 

The nation’s evolution is represented in the cloak of Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), the last Ethiopian emperor (1903-1974), who is revered as a deity in Rastafarianism. Many consider him the Second Coming of Jesus and Jah in human form, and the religion is named for Selassie’s pre-regnal title “Ras Tafari Makonnen.” Gold and sequins adorn the black velvet garment and honor the emperor who made strides to modernize the country with political and social reform. Just one year into his reign, he introduced the country’s first written constitution. “Ethiopia at the Crossroads” marks the cloak’s museum debut. 

Helina Metaferia patterns her work after the headdresses Ethiopian empresses wore and expresses the American fight for civil rights in “Headdress 6” (2019) and “Headdress 23” (2021). Both works feature African American women wearing headdresses comprised of photographs from the Civil Rights Movement, including images from Black Panther newspapers. Metaferia is the child of Ethiopian immigrants and was born in Washington, D.C. 

Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian’s “The End of the Beginning” (1972-1973) illustrates Lalibela and Aksum, both historical sites in Ethiopia, being destroyed by fire. While a white bird stands as a witness and survivor of the destruction, a spirit figure represents a past that wants to escape the horror of the present. Boghossian was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, studied in Europe and came to the United States in 1970. After returning to Ethiopia once in 1972, Boghossian remained in the United States after the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia prevented him from returning.

Theo Eshetu’s “Brave New World II” is one of a handful of contemporary works that bring a digital component to the exhibition. The multimedia and video installation invites viewers on a journey around the world with footage of John F. Kennedy International Airport and the Statue of Liberty in New York City, an Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany, an Italian insurance commercial and dancers in Bali. Using a mirrored box, the artist ensures that the images take on the form of a globe. Eshetu, who was born in London to Ethiopian and Dutch parents and raised in Senegal, uses the work to communicate how technology has connected people and transformed the way everyone experiences the world. The work is named for Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel that is set in a future where technology heavily influences society. 

“Visitors to ‘Ethiopia at the Crossroads’ will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the country — the place and its culture,” said Ong. “The exhibition celebrates historic makers and objects and their impact on contemporary artists from Ethiopia and the diaspora who, excitingly, are increasingly visible on the global stage. By exploring Ethiopian artistic practice and exchange from antiquity to now, it becomes clear that many of the country’s centuries-old traditions remain alive and influential today.”

“Ethiopia at the Crossroads” is co-organized by the Walters Art Museum (Baltimore), 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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