The D.C. region is home to the largest Ethiopian community outside that country, yet displays of its art and culture in area museums have been relatively rare.
The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore now helps fill that gap with the excellent “Ethiopia at the Crossroads,” showcasing more than nine centuries’ worth of what curator Christine Sciacca calls the “amazing cultural production that came out of Ethiopia.” Over the past several decades, the museum has developed one of the most significant collections of Ethiopian art outside Ethiopia, and the 220-plus works in the exhibition are largely drawn from its holdings.
The objects are impressively diverse, including richly painted triptych icons, colorful illuminated manuscripts, a variety of metalwork, ancient coins, contemporary paintings and multimedia art, and even a gold-embroidered black velvet cloak that belonged to Emperor Haile Selassie.
The exhibit is a sensory feast. Adding to the riot of color, the museum has painted some of the gallery walls bright green, yellow and red — the colors of the Ethiopian flag — which complement the predominant palette of the artworks. There are even olfactory elements: Visitors can scratch and sniff (and keep) pocket scent cards that conjure up berbere, a spice mixture, and frankincense, used in Ethiopian church rites.
Rather than conceiving of Ethiopian art as a self-contained universe, the show deftly explores how this art was shaped by interactions with surrounding cultures.
“Ethiopia is kind of where Africa, Asia and Europe come together,” Sciacca says. “We tend to think people didn’t travel much in the Middle Ages … but they did in fact travel a lot. So that’s how you get those points of exchange that [you’re] seeing in the artworks.”
In the mid-4th century, Ethiopia became only the second nation in the world, after Armenia, to adopt Christianity as the state religion. Loosely chronological sections chart the subsequent cultural crosscurrents and mutual influences on the country’s religious art, particularly via the Byzantine Empire, Armenia and Coptic Egypt, all of which shared a common Eastern Orthodox Christianity with Ethiopia. European artists, mainly Catholic Italians and Jesuit Portuguese, later had an impact as well.
“Things like textiles and books are easily portable. … Artists can travel,” Sciacca notes. “So lots of motifs get passed around: The shape of the cross, interlace, images of the Virgin kind of get exchanged back and forth.”
Significant items include an early-14th-century Gospel book that is the oldest Ethiopian manuscript in a North American collection, with illustrations of the crucifixion and the resurrection; Sciacca notes that the cross is shown garnished with jewels because Ethiopian artists weren’t yet depicting Jesus on the cross then.
Several paintings and icons of the Madonna and child are juxtaposed to show how 15th-century Ethiopian artists and Italian painters at the Ethiopian court interpreted the same scene. “You can see a lot of similarities in terms of the composition, the way that the mother and child interact. But the Ethiopian artist is very much doing it in an Ethiopian vein,” Sciacca says. They were “aware of the traditions in Europe and Byzantium, for example, but taking things in their own direction.”
“Crossroads” also crucially examines Ethiopia as a multicultural and multifaith society, home to dozens of ethnic groups and a population that’s a third Muslim. Several displays feature Islamic art and artifacts — including Qurans and elaborately woven traditional baskets — from Harar, an eastern city that was a historic center of Islamic learning. Also briefly profiled is Ethiopia’s ancient Jewish community, Beta Israel, whose members have almost entirely immigrated to Israel in recent decades.
The Walters consulted extensively with the region’s Ethiopian community to create the exhibition, and D.C. connections abound. Short videos show a feast day celebration at the Debre Meheret Kedus Michael Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral in Northeast Washington and interviews with community members including a Howard University doctoral student who teaches the liturgical language Ge’ez. The museum had an Ethiopian seamstress in Silver Spring make the deep-red satin dressings for the stately copper, bronze and silver processional crosses on view, some of them centuries old, and drape them in the proper manner.
Ethiopian American artist Tsedaye Makonnen, who was born and lives in D.C., served as a guest curator for the handful of modern and contemporary artworks, which are mixed in with the older objects to play off historical events and themes. The powerful painting “The End of the Beginning” (1972-1973) by the late Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian — an Ethiopian-born artist who moved to Washington and taught at Howard for nearly three decades — eerily presages the country’s 1970s political upheaval with its depiction of the historical sites of Lalibela and Aksum on fire. Two eye-catching collaged portraits by D.C.-born Helina Metaferia and a kaleidoscopic interactive video piece by Theo Eshetu are also of note.
While not part of “Crossroads,” a work by Makonnen herself, the luminous “Senait & Nahom: The Peacemaker & the Comforter” (2019), is on view on the museum’s third floor and makes a nice counterpoint. The meditative installation of totemlike, mirrored light boxes pierced with varied forms of Ethiopian crosses (echoing many seen in the main exhibit) honors two real-life Eritrean migrants who died in a European asylum center.
“Crossroads” is set to travel later to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and the Toledo Museum of Art, both of which co-organized it with the Walters. With so few exhibits like this, it’s fortunate that audiences beyond the D.C. area will have the chance to see these wonders of Ethiopian art, too.
Ethiopia at the Crossroads
Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore. thewalters.org.
Dates: Through March 3.