The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 24th March 2009

Ethiopian Paintings held by the Royal Asiatic Society

Given by - Heidi Cutts and Dorothea McEwan

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

Excuse me! Isn’t Ethiopia in Africa? Ethiopian paintings in the Royal Asiatic Society? Something wrong? Maybe not.

The fact is that for all three donors of this collection – David Buxton (1910–2003), Charles Beckingham (1914–1998) and Richard Pankhurst (b. 1927) – the RAS was a welcoming home base.

For a ten year period (1976–1986), during the Derg’s rule in Ethiopia, Richard Pankhurst was RAS librarian; Prof. Beckingham was RAS President 1967–1970 whilst David Buxton was intimately connected with the RAS by virtue of his scholarly work on churches in Eastern Europe and Asia as well as Ethiopia.

So we should not be too parochial.

The Ethiopian paintings in the RAS collection are all modern. Precise dates for the paintings are not available, but they are all, including the ones brought along by Anglo-Ethiopian Society members Graham Tayar and Christian Curtis, twentieth century from approximately 1925 to 1965.

Alison Ohta wrote an article on the Ethiopian Paintings at the Royal Asiatic Society for the summer 2008 News File. Two colour illustrations at the foot of the article are details of the battle of Adwa (2 March 1896), the first of David Buxton’s three pictures (RAS refs: 047:001 – 003) to be described by Dorothea.

The very large audience, some seventy of us, first saw slides of the paintings and were then asked to go upstairs in small groups to the RAS Reading Room where the art was on special display.

Buxton’s second donation features the Meskel ceremony with Emperor Menelik and the Abuna in the presence of the diplomatic corps, crowds and warriors. A bonfire is depicted to commemorate Queen Helena’s discovery in her pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326 of the True Cross by proceeding to where the bonfire’s smoke touched the ground.

The third Buxton picture was of Haile Selassie’s Court of Justice with witnesses and a person being flogged. The Ethiopian penchant for illustrating suffering – so prevalent in mediaeval painting – has clearly not departed!

Richard Pankhurst’s donations (refs: 047-004 to 047-011) were all charming depictions of Ethiopian everyday life: women returning from the river with water jars; a woman cooking over a fire; two men eating from a mesob (wicker-basket table); musicians playing: masinqwo (one-stringed violin), washint (flute) and kebero (drum) – to list but a few.

Two pictures donated by Prof. Beckingham (refs: 047-012/3) complete the RAS’s collection. Firstly, a scene representing social and domestic life at Lake Tana and its islands. On the water, there are boats carrying a king and queen, chiefs and priests; whilst on the mainland, we see figures going to market and involved in agriculture. The second is a modern version of the Ethiopian national saga, the story of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon. The details, the symbolism in both pictures were wonderfully described by Heidi Cutts (Curator of Pictures, the African Collection at the British Museum) who has made herself an expert in Ethiopian art, both modern and historical.

Graham Tayar brought in a set of 25 post cards sent to him and signed by Ethiopia’s greatest living artist, Afewerk Tekle, a graduate of London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts as well as the Slade. He was also the 1997 laureate of the biennale at Aquitaine in France. The signed postcards were printed replicas of the artist’s paintings. Afewerk Tekle has achieved such a status that the signatures alone make this postcard collection a veritable treasure.

Graham’s second painting was a very bloody depiction of the crucifixion by Gebre Kristos Desta, another outstanding Ethiopian artist.

Christian Curtis (née Curle) is the author of a book on her father entitled: Letters from the Horn of Africa 1932–42 – Sandy Curle, Soldier and Diplomat Extraordinary. The book (ISBN 978184415854) was published in November 2008 by Pen and Sword Books Ltd. Christian brought along an extraordinary picture of her father, Lieutenant Colonel Curle DSO, by Yohannes Tesemma, a founding member of the Ethiopian Artists Club.

Yohannes Tesemma drew attention to Curle’s extraordinary height by portraying a giraffe with Curle’s head on top. In the centre of the picture is Emperor Haile Selassie and to the right, kneeling in deference, are Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt! In the forefront are armed recruits, known at the time as ‘Curle’s irregulars’. This gem of a painting survives by the merest chance of discovery in, and rescue from, an anonymous tej bet. Such are the vagaries of life!

All in all a remarkable evening in which the distinctive genre of modern Ethiopian art was put on the map for all who attended; and certainly a gap to fill, for all who did not.

Our grateful thanks to Alison Ohta, Curator at the RAS, Heidi Cutts of the British Museum, Dorothea McEwan of the Warburg Institute, as well as all our other Anglo-Ethiopian Society members who made this evening as memorable as it was.

First Published in News File Summer 2009

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