Ethiopia at the Crossroads

1,750 years of artistic traditions

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 August 17  -November 10, 2024, at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA).

The first United States exhibition of its kind in nearly five decades features 220 works that situate Ethiopian art globally. It emphasizes 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.

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 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’s work is patterned 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 a child of Ethiopian immigrants who 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 worldwide 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 the form of a globe. Eshetu, born in London to Ethiopian and Dutch parents and raised in Senegal, uses the work to communicate how technology has connected people and transformed how everyone experiences the world. The work is named after Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, set in a future where technology heavily influences society.

Visitors to ‘Ethiopia at the Crossroads’ will be able to immerse themselves in the country — the place and its culture. 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.

Admission to the Museum is always free. It is located at 2445 Monroe St., one block off I-75, and is open Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays from 11 am to 5 pm and 11 am to 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. More information is available at 419-255-8000 and toledomuseum.org.