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Ethiopian Passages: Contemporary Art From the Diaspora.

by Elizabeth Harney Philip Wilson Publisher (London)/ Smithsonian National Museum of African Art May 2003, $29.95, ISBN 0-856-67562-8

How ironic to review Elizabeth Harney's book Ethiopian Passages: Contemporary Art From the Diaspora at the same time that scientists examining human tossils say they have proved that Ethiopia is the birthplace of modern humans,

The book, which accompanies an exhibit of the same name at the National Museum of African Art, in Washington, D.C., (on view through December 2003), features the work of ten artists: Elisabeth Atnafu, Alexander "Skunder" Boghossian, Achamyeleh Debela, Wosene Kosrof, Julie Mehretu, Aida Muluneh, Etiye Dimma Poulsen, Mickael Bethe-Selassie, Kebedech Tekleab and Elizabeth Habte Wold. All are Ethiopia born but left to live, study and work throughout the world--in California, France and New York, including six who studied at Howard University and have lived in Washington, D.C., where the largest population of Ethiopians reside outside the capital Addis Ababa. The artists range in age from 30 to 60, and they work in mostly modern mediums: acrylic, ceramics, mixed media, papier-mache and photography.

Author Elizabeth Harney says the exhibit attempts to show how living in the Diaspora affects the artists' creative process. "Perhaps more important, however, are fire challenges that this exhibition brings to the definitions of authenticity that govern the market for tradition-based works," Harney writes, "a market that is essentially limited to the circulation of master-pieces in and out of private and public collections in the West." Many consider these "authentic" works to be those indigenous sculpture, paintings, woven fabrics, potteries created by nameless artists.

Of particular note is the work of former Howard professor Boghossian, who died at age 66 soon after fire exhibit opened in May and is considered a pioneer of the contemporary Ethiopian art movement. Boghossian was the first contemporary African artist to have his work purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He mentored and trained a generation of Ethiopian and African American artists at Howard and promoted collaboration between African American artists and African artists.

Boghossian studied in Paris in the 1950s and '60s and was influenced as much by jazz as by artists as Pablo Picasso, Patti Klee and Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam. He returned to teach in Addis Ababa before moving to the United States during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Working in mediums from Ugandan bark cloth (used in burials), to oil and mixed media, Boghossian's abstract, surrealist style draws on his interest in traditional Ethiopian arts, modern history, magic scrolls and church paintings.

Also included is Aida Muluneh, the youngest artist of the group, who grew up in Canada and graduated from Howard University with a degree in film and communications. She works in photography to create striking fragmented images.

Self-taught artist Mickael Bethe-Selassie creates colorful papier-mache sculptures. He left Ethiopia just before the revolution of 1974 to study in France, where he now lives. By focusing on a narrow group of artists, the book examines the creativity that springs from the Africaness of the artists, as well as their personal experiences of exile, migration, loss and reinvention. Within this examination, the reader cannot escape the historical significance of Ethiopia (whose name translates as "lard of the sun-burned"), where the ancient religions of Judaism and Islam and birth of Christianity converged, as well as home of Ark of the Covenant, Queen of Sheba and the rock-hewn Ethiopian Orthodox churches of the ancient city of Lalibela. And now being cited as the birth of the first Homo sapiens. The artists here draw on a legacy that includes ecclesiastic art, church murals, icons and silver crosses to create works in a modern vernacular. The art in Ethiopian Passages draws more on iconography than more familiar African crafts and is perhaps the first attempt to present the work of contemporary Ethiopian artists in a meaningful way.

--Ingrid Sturgis, editor of, is currently working on an anthology about aunts.
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Author:Sturgis, Ingrid
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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