The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Conference Review - Friday 24th June 2005

10th Orbis Aethiopicus/ 7th History Ethiopian Art Conference, Leipzig, Germany

Given by -

Reviewed by - Anne Parsons

The tenth Orbis Aethiopicus meeting and the seventh International Conference on the History of Ethiopian Art were held as a combined event in Leipzig, Germany on 24 to 26 June 2005.

A great cause of celebration was the ninetieth birthday of Professor Stanislaw Chojnacki, a very well-known figure in Ethiopian art and history circles.

The Orbis Aethiopicus conference had as its theme the centenary of diplomatic relations between Germany and Ethiopia. As is perhaps natural most of these lectures were in German, so although I did attend, I'm afraid I couldn't understand sufficiently well to give a report for News File. A very interesting display of modem reproductions of the photographs taken by Theodor von Lupke for Die Deutsche Aksum-Expedition in 1906 was on show during the conference.

The part of the event devoted to Ethiopian art had many interesting presentations, nearly all in English, and included several by members of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society or speakers who have given us presentations in the past.

Dr Dorothea McEwan (who gave the Society lecture in September 2005 - see report gave a fascinating overview of the changes in the way black people have been presented in Western art over the centuries.

Lieh Niederstadt (who spoke to the Society in June 2003 - see report) discussed the contemporary art market in Addis Ababa. She highlighted the difficulties that artists who wish to follow their own vision face when trying to sell their work. The commercial market can often favour paintings with a very obvious Ethiopian theme and flavour and so she gave her talk the title “To Their Mind, Modem is not Ethiopian”.

Professor Ewa Balicka-Witakowska from Uppsala University, Sweden, presented further findings from her research of the wall paintings in the sanctuary of the Genneta Maryam church near Lalibela. Ewa has made several visits to this church and is continuing to catalogue and date the paintings.

Paul Henze told us about some of the manuscript treasures he has recently seen during his travels in Tigray. This prompted David Phillipson to suggest that the identity and location of the churches where any newly found treasures are found should not be published in an attempt to safeguard them from looting or robbery. This was not a popular suggestion with several delegates who believed that suppression of such information was not in the spirit of academic scholarship and also was unlikely to add to security.

Professor Michael Gervers from the University of Toronto has undertaken a lot of field research in Ethiopia, often with Ewa Balicka-Witakowska, and has visited the rock-cut church of Maryam Dengelat in Tigray. This church is cut into the vertical cliff face and was abandoned by the congregation about two centuries ago; they cut a new church lower down with easier access. Michael has been brave enough to swing on the ends of a 30-feet-long rope to enter the church and his efforts have been well rewarded. At a previous conference I heard him describe and show photos of the wall paintings but on this occasion he discussed two late sixteenth century engravings from Rome that were found pasted on to a rock-cut pillar. The presence of these engravings obviously demonstrates the influence of the Jesuits in Ethiopia.

Dr Claire Bosc-Tiessé and Dr Anaïs Wion gave a joint account of the Ethiopian art collected during the French Mission Dakar-Djibouti. The Mission visited Gondar in 1932 and took back to France many objects including church wall paintings and icons. In several instances they commissioned replicas, executed by both Ethiopian and European artists, to replace the items they took. Many of these can still be seen in the churches today but sadly the side-by-side photographs shown by Claire and Anaïs clearly demonstrated the inferiority of the replicas.

Professor David Phillipson from Cambridge gave a shortened version of the lecture he gave at the British Academy in October 2004 where he reconsidered the chronology of the Lalibela churches (see the report from the Spring News File 2005). Whilst the sequence in which the buildings were created and the idea that some had originally had secular purposes were broadly accepted, as these ideas had been promoted by others in the audience before, the much earlier start dates proposed did not appear to find much support.

The final presentation in the art section was given by Christine Chaillot (who spoke to the Society in March 2005 - see report) Her paper at the conference discussed the veneration of icons in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Christine introduced me to a young Ethiopian friend of hers who was working for Deutsche-Welle radio station based in Cologne, Germany. It has a one hour daily broadcast in Amharic aimed at the Ethiopian diaspora. I was interviewed briefly (along with most speakers and delegates) and asked to say a few words about the Anglo-Ethiopian Society. I hope that we may soon see some new members from Europe!

So all in all I had a very enjoyable, rewarding, and informative weekend and participation in the next conference is highly recommended.

First Published in News File Summer 2005

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