Exhibition showcasing 1,750 years of African nation's artistic, cultural, and religious history debuts

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Exhibition showcasing 1,750 years of African nation's artistic, cultural, and religious history debuts
Diptych with Mary and Her Son Flanked by Archangels, Apostles and a Saint. Fre Seyon, late 15th century. Tempera on wood. Museum purchase, the W. Alton Jones Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2001, from the Nancy and Robert Nooter Collection.

BALTIMORE, MD.- Today the Walters Art Museum debuts Ethiopia at the Crossroads, an extraordinary display of Ethiopian art exploring over1,750 years of Ethiopian culture and history through over 220 objects. Co-organized by the Walters Art Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum, and the Toledo Museum of Art, Ethiopia at the Crossroads is the first major art exhibition in America to examine an array of Ethiopian cultural and artistic traditions from their origins to the present day and to chart the ways in which engaging with surrounding cultures manifested in Ethiopian artistic practices. A selection of works by contemporary Ethiopian artists are being displayed in conversation with the larger group of historic works that form the core of the exhibition. Tsedaye Makonnen, guest curator of contemporary art for the exhibition and an Ethiopian American multidisciplinary artist in her own right, shares in-gallery insights about these juxtapositions.

“Ethiopia at the Crossroads moves beyond the traditional Western perceptions of Ethiopian culture and re-centers both our understanding of the country’s significant artistic traditions and its connections to the wider world. This exhibition demonstrates Ethiopia’s foundational role in world culture, religion, and the humanities, while illuminating the specific ways in which Ethiopian artists and communities encountered and exchanged ideas with other cultures near and far,” said Julia Marciari-Alexander, Andrea B. and John H. Laporte Director. “Over the last three decades the Walters has built the most important collection of Ethiopian art outside of that nation, devoted curatorial resources to explore this collection area, and invested in conservation research and treatment for these objects. This new exhibition is the culmination of this long-term investment, an outstanding opportunity to share these works with our community, including the significant Ethiopian diaspora community in the Baltimore/Washington, DC area.”

The development of Ethiopia at the Crossroads was supported by a group of academic and community advisors, the majority of whom are of Ethiopian descent, whose lived experience provided essential input which informed the museum’s thinking around Ethiopian art and offered crucial guidance on the artworks included, the design of the exhibition, and community outreach. These advisors—a group of curators, professors, artists, clergy, business owners, and more—have forged invaluable connections between the museum and the local Ethiopian diaspora community.

Institutions in Ethiopia also offered essential partnership to the Walters throughout the realization of the exhibition: The Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Abba University, and Addis Fine Art generously lent objects, while the National Archives and Library of Ethiopia and the National Museum of Ethiopia provided the Walters with a better understanding of how best to present the Ethiopian culture on view.

Ethiopia’s Remarkable History

Ethiopia at the Crossroads delves into Ethiopian art as reflective of the nation’s notable history, including its status as an early adopter of Christianity and the only African nation that was never colonized, and demonstrates its enormous cultural significance through the themes of cross-cultural exchange. In particular, the exhibition traces the creation and movement of art objects, styles, and materials into and out of Ethiopia, whether across the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Indian Ocean, or within the African continent, especially up the Nile River.

The exhibition features objects drawn from the Walters collection of Ethiopian art augmented with loans from other American, Ethiopian, and European lenders. Visitors will see painted Christian icons, church wall paintings, illuminated manuscripts, healing scrolls, metalwork crosses, coins, colorful basketry, ancient stone and 20th-century wood sculpture, contemporary artworks, and more.

Home to over 80 different ethnicities and religious groups, a large portion of the historic artistic production in Ethiopia supported one of the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), all of which have early roots in Ethiopia. As one of the oldest Christian kingdoms, Ethiopian artists produced icons, wall paintings, crosses of various scales, and illuminated manuscripts to support this religious tradition and its liturgy. Visitors will learn the great religious significance of prayers to and images of the Virgin Mary, which were developed during this period under the patronage of Zar’a Ya’qob (1434-68). Bronze processional crosses and some of the earliest surviving illuminated manuscripts from Ethiopia are also on view. Ethiopia at the Crossroads offers insight into secular objects produced and utilized by Ethiopians, too, including coins minted by generations of Aksumite rulers and textiles used for manuscript bindings and garments.

Past Meets Present

Works by living artists are integrated throughout the space and juxtaposed with the
historic works to help visitors comprehend and connect with the multiplicity of cultures and histories presented. In Tsedaye Makonnen’s role as a guest curator, the Ethiopian American multidisciplinary artist, curator, researcher, and cultural producer designed programs related to the exhibition and penned wall labels for works by living artists. Makonnen’s insights into the objects featured in Ethiopia at the Crossroads consider the tangible effect the historic artworks have on these artists, who frequently incorporate their themes, motifs, and stylistic features in varying degrees.

Wax and Gold X (2014) by Wosene Worke Kosrof utilizes graphic, abstracted forms of Amharic script, the Semitic language widely spoken in Ethiopia and descended from Gəʿəz, an ancient written system indigenous to Africa. Ethiopia at the Crossroads features dozens of Ethiopian manuscripts, including Gospel books and healing scrolls. Meanwhile, Ada Muluneh’s All in One (2016) features a woman wearing body paint inspired by traditions of African body art and a composition reminiscent of Ethiopian church paintings of the Virgin Mary.

“Tsedaye’s keen and insightful interpretations of the contemporary works in Ethiopia at the Crossroads shine a spotlight on the profound and enduring connections between Ethiopia's rich history and its vibrant present. Her work as a multidisciplinary artist and lived experience as the daughter of Ethiopian refugees adds a unique and personal depth to the exhibition, allowing visitors to gain not only an appreciation for Ethiopia's immense cultural contributions but also a deep understanding of its people,” said Christine Sciacca, Curator of European Art, 300–1400 CE. “The generosity of Tsedaye’s interpretations in conjunction with the valuable guidance of our advisory group and our esteemed partner institutions in Addis Abba has proved essential to this exhibition. Ethiopia at the Crossroads would not be possible without this collaboration and has ensured that the exhibition stands as a genuine celebration of this remarkable African nation.”

Walters Art Museum
Ethiopia at the Crossroads
December 3rd, 2023 - March 3rd, 2024
Curated by Christine Sciacca, Curator of European Art

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