The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 20th June 2007

Ethiopian Paintings: hidden stories, true meanings

Given by - Heidi Cutts

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

Heidi Cutts studied Fine Art at the Chelsea School of Art. She is now Museum Assistant at the African Collection in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas Centre for Anthropology of the British Museum. This collection includes modern religious and secular Ethiopian paintings of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Most of the collection is stored away from public view. The British Museum, it seems, is like a cultural iceberg - able to display only a small fraction of its total collection.

However on this near mid-summer eve, the Society was treated to a rare privilege - a slide presentation backed by Heidi's extremely well-informed commentary.

Heidi's detailed historical knowledge comes from considerable study which includes not just Ethiopian history but language too - she went to night school to learn Amharic.

The first slides were pencil drawings collected and donated by Alexander Barclay Russell (1900-1980), one time art master at Charterhouse School and founder of the Society for Education in Art. What connection, if any, Barclay Russell had with Ethiopia and how he came upon his collection is by no means clear. The importance of the work was in contrast very clear and illustrated the sub-theme of the evening's talk: 'hidden stories, true meanings'.

The first pencil drawing depicted Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents. The allegorical nature of this drawing soon became clear when we were told it was drawn shortly after the attempted assassination on 19th February 1937 of Mussolini's Viceroy to Ethiopia, Field Marshall Rodolfo Graziani. The attempted assassination unleashed a retributive fury prompting the murder of thousands of innocent Ethiopian men, women and children.

Recalling the theme of 'hidden stories, true meanings' was a painting of Christ on the Cross donated to the BM in 1893 by the English explorer, archaeologist and author, James Theodore Bent. Whilst the crucifixion is the ostensible subject-matter of the painting, once again, from the mass of sub-paintings contained within the canvas, of at least equal importance is the depiction of the life of Lidj Kassa (the Emperor Theodore 1855-1868) and his Abuna, Abuna Salama the third (Abuna from 1841-1867). This painting will be on display in Room 3 of the BM from March 2008.

Not all the drawings and paintings were allegorical. Some were religious through and through as, for example, the twenty four priests from heaven fallen down in prayer - a theme taken from The Apocalypse of St. John. Bridging both religious and military paintings was the repeated characterisation of Ethiopia's (and England's) patron saint, St. George. In question time after the talk, one member of the audience advised the meeting that the English flag, the red cross of England, derives from the frequent depiction by Ethiopian painters of a red cross on the hind quarters of St. George's white charger.

Also depicted were portraits of many historical figures: Sahle Selassie, King of Shewa (1813-1847); pictures (rescued from a skip in Devizes) of the Court of the Emperor Theodore (1855-1868); Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1879) with a lion's mane wrapped around his shoulder; Emperor Menelik (1880-1913), together with his wife, the Empress Taitu, who bravely fought with him, leading his Ethiopian army to victory, against the Italian General Baratieri at the Battle of Adwa on 1st March 1896. This picture is reproduced below.

St. George, the ubiquitous patron saint of Ethiopia, overseeing the battle of Adwa.
Photo - © The British Museum - 2007

As always our thanks and gratitude go out to all those whose scholarship and effort foster knowledge and interest in Ethiopia past and present. For her work in conserving Ethiopia's 'modern' religious and historical art our very great thanks to Heidi Cutts.

Lack of space precludes a detailed description of each picture we were shown. Now comes the good news: the visual experience will shortly be available on the British Museum website.

Detail showing Emperor Menelik at the head of his troops.
Photo - © The British Museum - 2007
Detail showing the Empress Taitu, revolver in hand
Photo - © The British Museum - 2007

The Empress's presence in the picture is not just by way of courtesy. The Empress was a very remarkable woman. She played a vital part in all aspects of the battle, including its pre-preparation, its strategy, and the fighting on the day commanding a troop of Ethiopian canon.

The Empress Taitu is quoted on the website as having summarily dismissed the duplicitous self-styled 'advisor to the Emperor', Count Pietro Antonelli. It was he who drafted the Treaty of Wuchale in May 1889. This said one thing in article 17 of its Amharic version and quite another in the Italian.

The Empress is quoted as telling Antonelli: "if it is your wish, start the war next week. Nobody is afraid. We will see you when you turn into action. Don't ever think that we are not willing to sacrifice our comfort and die for our country. Giving one's life for the country is an honourable death. I do not want to keep you here. It is getting dark. I am sure you have a lot of things to do to put your threats into action. I am a woman. I do not like war. However, I would rather die than accept your deal ..."

The words of a very brave and formidable lady.

First Published in News File Winter 2007

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